Enthaalle. My clickbait-title game is getting stronger by the day.
Wait, don’t leave! I wasn’t faffing. Give me 5 minutes, and I’ll tell you why I think Thallumaala qualifies as a ‘horror’ film – and a prolific one at that.
What exactly is horror? How is this genre defined?
StudioBinder defines horror as a “genre of storytelling intended to scare, shock, and thrill its audience”. When we talk of horror genre films, however, we also have other (more specific) features that come to mind: a usually dark subject matter, a ghost and a backstory, probably a few jumpscares, and maybe even some subtext or social commentary underlining the surface-level thrills (like how Jordan Peele addressed racism in Get Out).
But are these factors required to term a film as a ‘horror film’? Does ‘shock and thrill’ have a broader meaning in cinema?
In an episode of Seen and the Unseen, noted film critic Jai Arjun Singh discards the conventional yardstick to analyze horror films. He further goes on to talk about how horror itself is a subtext in the medium of cinema. If we look at film history, the earliest motion picture by the Lumiere Brothers (that of a moving train) created a wave of fright among its audience, who rushed out of the cinema halls to ‘save themselves’. There are more such instances from the era; Bob Seidensticker writes in FutureHype: “[When] the first movies were shown publicly, one presented a scene at the seashore — no monsters, no invading army, just waves rolling in along a beach. The crowd was terrified. They ran from the makeshift movie theater to escape the onrushing water.”
With time, the audiences got acquainted with moving images and felt comfortable enough to sit their asses and watch and appreciate the art. But not for long, because… soon enough, some smart editor invented “cuts”. Now, one set of motion images immediately seamlessly succeeded another unrelated set. People were once again terrified by this new advancement. A few years later, silent films transformed into talkies. What? These lifeless screens could produce sound now? A few more years down the line, colour films were born. And so on and so forth..
Each of these instances were breakthrough advancements that shocked our nervous systems. In Singh’s words, horror is ingrained in cinema’s DNA. Every time a decision (creative or technological) is taken that is a departure from the status quo, it produces a shock that appeals to our fears about technology. The magnitude of the shock, of course, would depend on the degree of divergence. All in all, the shock could be said to be an undeniable bodily reaction to crazy-ass creativity. And so, any act of creativity could be termed as having a horror element.
Where we stand today, it seems like the cinema form has finally reached saturation. But that’s when the occasional bonker of a film comes up, kicks you in the gut and forces you to throw that thought away and surrender to the change in shock. In a Kerala context, one of the best examples of this kind of film is Thallumaala.
While it was essentially a masala film centred around a gang of boys in Ponnani, the editing and cinematography of Thallumaala took it to never-before-seen, wild heights. The fight sequences are shot with an almost 360-degree panoramic view of the goings-on; the camera sometimes rotates at par with the characters, taking us on the proverbial rollercoaster ride; the cuts are super-seamless and yet stitch super-unrelated scenes together (the film is mostly non-linear). Like it or hate it, it’s difficult to ignore Thallumaala’s vibrant energy, which almost resembles an Instagram reel. (Speaking of which, even the Instagram reel is a ‘horrific revolution’ that has, over time, influenced our attention spans with time-effective value-adding content.)
You’d have noticed that Thallumaala was a film that had certain sections of the audience completely giving up on it despite its massive box-office success. This is where I think people’s reaction to a shock differs. Some people – and I’m tempted to think this is an age thing, so let’s say oldies – are more resistant to change, and so when they see something this off-beat, they tend to label it blasphemous. The others (youngsters?), however, may celebrate change; they may feel the shock dissipating and transforming into excitement, so a film like Thallumaala becomes something they kondaadals in all glory.
Though every craft can technically generate the aforementioned shock, I believe the editing can produce the greatest impact, given how it single-handedly decides the flow of the narrative. Moreover, given that most filmmakers are out there to entertain, editing becomes a handy wand that can be wielded to spring surprises for the audience. And given the narrow attention spans of people these days, it’s almost necessary to think of novel ways of narrating stories. I think “fresh content, tight packaging and fresh presentation” is the new entertainment norm, and two of these three factors can be optimised at the edit table.
If you look at the recent films that have been called “experimental and entertaining”, they’ve mostly played around with editing; right from the Tamil pesanga’s current favourite Love Today to Academy-favourite Everything Everywhere All at Once. Malayalam cinema has traditionally never shied away from experimentation, which is why I hope that Thallumaala might just have spun a revolution in editing. We already have a bunch of really promising filmmakers like Krishand (who made Purusha Pretham and Avasavyuham) and Abhinav Sunder Nayak (Mukundan Unni Associates), who are gutsy enough to break the rules. So, as viewers, I think it’s fair to be optimistic about this trend and to hope that we continue to get horrified at regular intervals, time and again!