Mollywood's shiver down the spine

Horror

Likely to be spotted around Ezhilam pala trees, she is known to be fond of nocturnal travellers, especially men who are lost and lonely. And if she stops you for a little lime to go with her betel leaves, don’t be lured by the fragrance or her long, wild hair. Scoot instead! She’s likely to be a yakshi, a female demon who, in the guise of an enchanting woman, seduces men and drinks their blood. For confirmation, lower your gaze towards her feet, which in the case of a yakshi, will not touch the ground.

In 1968, Yakshi, the first psychological thriller in Malayalam cinema based on Malayatoor Ramakrishnan’s novel of the same name, was released. Years later, Shalini Usha Nair, who grew up listening to the myth of yakshis is preparing for the release of her version of this story. For Shalini, who has studied both literature and film, adapting a novel for the screen seemed only like a natural progression. “These days, any book I read, I divide it into two categories, filmable and non-filmable.” In her bedroom painted in different shades of blue, she has neatly stacked her books across a long horizontal shelf. Are they also divided into similar categories, one wonders.

But why make a film based on a novel which has already been adapted for the screen? “Mine is a contemporary film and the milieu and concerns are totally different. While the basic premise and some of the plot points are the same, my script is not very faithful to the novel. The fact that there was another film based on the novel was incidental and did not affect my decision in any way, because my interpretation of the novel is very personal,” says this young director, who seems to want people to regard her for her craft, rather than as just a ‘woman filmmaker’.

While the main concern of Yakshi was the science versus faith conflict, Akam — Shalini’s first feature film — is about a doomed relationship and the power shifts that occur within it.

It revolves around the lives of Srini, a young urban architect (played by Fahadh Faasil) and Ragini (Anumol K), the mysterious woman he is drawn to. “Srini never quite gets Ragini. In his world, she always seems slightly out of context. Everything from her clothes to her accent seems a little out of place. Initially, to him, her difference is her charm. Once they are together though, his inability to understand her drives him to frustration.

It is Srini’s own insecurities that he projects onto Ragini and their relationship. It is at once the story of Srini and Ragini and that of a million other couples grappling with the unbridgeable between them,” says Shalini, who wrote the script of the film over a period of three years.

But Akam isn’t entirely confined to the dark side of a man-woman relationship and the demons that reside in our heads. Through the film, Shalini also seems to be addressing issues like sexuality, urban isolation — “a new-age malady that afflicts mostly the 20-somethings” — and the social expectations imposed on a woman in Kerala, a state which is thought to be relatively progressive. The low-budget film is set in Trivandrum, which she describes as “at once warm, sinister and indifferent,” acting almost as a character in Akam.

Describing her filmmaking experience as an extremely stressful one, Shalini confesses to not having had a single creative thought during the entire process of production. “The shoot was harrowing. Production mostly involved crisis and people management.” But, she did enjoy the period during which she wrote the script and ideated, which in her opinion, involved a lot more creativity. Interestingly, for Akam, she chose to record sound on location. Apart from being an expensive process, this is also a challenging one that requires an immense amount of discipline on the sets. “Everyone had to stay very quiet,” says Shalini. Predictably, this turned out to be a nightmare for her sound recordist Radhakrishnan, especially since Shalini’s style of filmmaking is organic. So, why did she decide to avoid dubbing? “It is when you act that you are able to emote the best. When you dub, you can’t be in that moment again. Sound is such a part of your performance,” she says.

Since the film is a loose adaptation of a classic, comparisons are inevitable. Sitting in her house in Trivandrum where she lives with her grandmother, she tells me that there are plenty of purists around and that people have been telling her that Akam better be good.

Although Shalini portrays herself as a bit of a pessimist, it is hard to ignore the gleaming optimism in her eyes as she adds, “It was a sincere effort for me. I’ve given it my all.”

The film’s trailer is already out on Youtube (along with subtitles) and it certainly looks exciting and spooky. With only a handful of impressive psychological thrillers that we have seen in Indian cinema in the past decade, one can’t help but hope that Akam is as promising as it seems.

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