You sing a song. Pass the ending letter to your opponent who then sings a song beginning with that letter. The game goes on and on until one of them fails to come up with a song before the timer runs out. This is how a game of Antakshari works. Seems pretty straightforward, fun, enjoyable, and most of all, harmless, right?
But, director Vipin Das has ensured a dark hue to this decades-old game in his movie of the same name.
You don't listen to evergreen hits like 'Naadha Nee Varum' from Chamaram, or 'Megham Poothu Thudangi' from Thoovanathumbikal, or 'Varuvaan Illaarumee' from Manichithrathaazhu and think of a psychopathic killer on the loose.
You can even accuse Vipin of ruining the nostalgia associated with many Malayalam classics. However, at the risk of adopting a game-altering approach, the director has pulled off a raw and realistic psycho-thriller with a fresh treatment.
Das (Saiju Kurup) is the Circle Inspector of Kedaram, a high-range town. He has a penchant for Antakshari. All those who come to his station with complaints need to partake in the game just to indulge in his favourite pasttime.
One day, he gets a call from an anonymous number provoking him to sing along. A confused Das refuses. However, his refusal has serious repercussions as his daughter is attacked on the way home from school.
A panicking Das sets off on an investigation with his subordinate to find out the man behind the call. They dig up cases from the past that had similar modus operandi. How Das links the dots and finds out more about the attacker and his history forms the crux of Antakshari.
Trauma and its manifestations
The movie inherently talks about childhood trauma and its manifestations on the lives of those suffering from it. As is the trend with the serial killer genre these days, Vipin has tried to portray the reasons behind why the perpetrator became what he is today, thereby not branding him as a demon who gets ecstatic seeing the world burn.
The movie also builds on a few side plots, like that of a girl subjected to childhood abuse and a misogynistic father who mistreats his wife and stepson, to drive Vipin's intention further into the terrified minds of the audience.
People from not-so-privileged backgrounds may not have the means to deal with their trauma, and could end up with deviations in their mental health.
Vipin, with his non-linear storytelling, paints a clear picture of how traumatic events can create psychopathic tendencies in a child.
The climax is engaging and intense for the most part, and the entire credit for making it so goes to cinematographer Bablu Aju. He has done a fabulous job capturing the sheer horror of groping in the dark for a mentally deranged killer.
Though the climax peters out after a point, you don't really mind the director trying to make the final moments as horrific as possible.
Sound designer Arun S Mani's impactful score adds to the tense shades of the plot throughout. The main background theme has been composed using a few interesting guitar riffs, which works splendidly.
The joy of listening to your all-time favourites in a macabre situation is a different kind of experience. You are both happy and disturbed at the same time. Though some may find it odd and hilarious, this was a thoroughly enjoyable aspect of Antakshari. Also, all the characters have crooned the songs themselves, giving every classic an unpolished, 'not a singer singing' touch to it, which stood out.
Not an easy watch
Antakshari can be a difficult watch for those who are easily triggered. The movie has animal violence, sexual assault, child abuse, workplace harassment, use of foul language, casteism and normalisation of trauma.
All said, the movie is not without flaws. Towards the end, the makers seem to be in a hurry to close things out with the central plot, giving the audience no closure with the sub-plots, though this could be attributed to the deadline pressure of an OTT release. Otherwise, the even-paced editing has worked to the advantage of the film.
Saiju Kurup delivers a quality performance as CI Das. He seems like the perfect protagonist to drive small and effective stories like these. Hope to see more of him in challenging roles. Sudhi Koppa as the SI in probation has done a wonderful job supporting Saiju's character. However, it feels like he is being typecast as the 'main guy's friend' these days. He is a good actor with untapped capabilities.
Kottayam Ramesh brings his experience to the table playing the police officer that gets under your nerves by simply existing. Shabareesh Varma, Binu Pappu, Priyanka Nair and Vijay Babu have all done justice to their roles.
Even with his strange elements, Vipin has managed to weave a raw and realistic thriller that talks about the pain of trauma and how it changes you for life. And that deserves a pat on the back. Many movies from the industry have been talking about mental health through various genres and that is a positive shift. Antakshari, both as a thriller and as a subtle commentary on society's mindset, will not disappoint you.
Antakshari is streaming on Sony Liv.