Debutant director Pradeep Krishnamoorthy starts off with a lots of promise in the first act of Saithan. The truly mystical prelude combined with the realization that a first time film-maker had actually turned to Sujatha for inspiration, adds up to the superbly conceptualized credits to totally blow us out. It’s a sequence where everything – the setup, the haunting music, the sinister colour palettes, the effectively low key CG – comes together. It’s a worthy triumph of the audio-visual medium. We are sold. We wait in bated breath, wanting to be shocked out of our wits.
The second act gives us more of these – the hallucinations, the spectral figures, the looming voices, brain-games and the works. If the intended effect was to keep the genre in wraps, it works. At least, partially. But then, after a while, when the premise becomes guessable, the elements that originally spooked us out, start getting repetitive. Now, ideally, we should have got more questions to dwell on, to keep us from snapping out of the suspension bubble of disbelief – to tempt us into looking further into those horror motifs. But then, we aren’t given any. Instead the film, for some time, keeps swinging between the protagonist’s by-now familiar affliction and the single dramatic question “Who is Jayalakshmi?”, the answer to which no longer holding the same stakes as thirty minutes back. Pradeep, as if realizing it, breaks for interval very soon, not letting the brooding passivity to get to you. Fifty five minutes into the film, at the half way point, we feel a little cheated. No, nothing that transpires on screen is close to what could be called a genuine misstep. But, I guess that’s what fifteen early minutes of sky-rocketing hopes could do to you.
How I wish I could say the same about the rest of the film too! When it’s time for tying one noose after the other, and skilfully unknotting them, Pradeep conveniently seems to have gone auto-pilot. Things start getting awry, with disjointed, badly-written pieces of exposition being passed off as ’twists’. The emphasis frequently shifts to ‘shocking’ us with random ideas that seemed to have been cooked up impromptu, than genuine attempts at an immersive experience in the subject at hand. And the film, consequently, starts getting absurd and distant. We are given the chance and the time, to snap out of the proceedings, and start looking for sense in the super-natural. Does the soul carry memories with it? Is the brain a part of it? Aren’t neural circuits formed only at birth?
And that’s where you fail, a little, as a film-maker. When you loosen the grip and give the audience the cushion to go into reasoning mode in a sci-fi. This is less of a problem with literature, when the magic of words can be stretched out in a way that belies logic. But with audio-visuals, there is nothing for the viewer to imagine other than what is directly being fed to his senses. That is why, the novel worked despite the preposterity. We literally filled the gaps with our imagination. But here, it feels flat. There is nothing like a ‘reveal’. We just get what expect. In a less dramatic way than what we had been construed to believe.
But despite all this, I don’t think Pradeep can be written off, that easily. The romantic premise – something that has not been handled in recent Tamil cinema – boasts of some crackling moments, many of them, however, begging for smart capitalisations. He shows commendable restraint when there are possibilities for endless melodrama. He understands his lead’s limitations and works around them convincingly. With a little more focus in writing and execution, he could be better. Much much better.