Aval: Lo and behold, a well-made Tamil horror film

Only the Lord bears knowledge of how many horror films we have made over the last decade. Also incredulous is how most of these films haven’t really done much to whet the appetite of your average horror film connoisseur, who’s forever had to drum their fingers in restlessness and wait for the next big Hollywood experience to savour a genre-loyal product. Clearly, the makers of Aval have deeply felt this agony too. Milind Rau’s Aval is perhaps the closest a Tamil horror film has ever come to being deserving of that much-coveted label, ‘Hollywood standard’. The influences are very many. It’s evident in the just-another-day-in-a-love-marriage kisses shared by Krish (Siddharth, who barely puts a foot wrong) and Lakshmi (Andrea). It’s evident in the judicious use of background music when attempting to create tension. It’s evident in the inverted crosses. It’s evident in the problem-free use of VFX and makeup in the exorcism sequences.

Aval’s also got elements you’ve by now accustomed to seeing in homegrown horror films. You’ve got the cursory hypnosis routine. You’ve got the ‘big day’ when evil’s at its worst (it’s a solar eclipse here). In addition to the doctor figure and the priest (here, a pastor), you also get a spiritual guru who mumbles something about energy transfer. I liked how the film explores the science-religion conflict a bit, even if not to Emily Rose standards. The men of science, Krish and his psychiatrist friend (Suresh), are convinced that the affected girl, Jenny (a terrific Anisha Victor), is likely suffering from trauma-related hallucinations. The pastor sees the science guys sniggering and simply says, “I’ll perform the exorcism. You guys can tell everyone I failed. But I do believe it can heal,” he says, secure in his faith. A scene later, he drums home the point when he says that while it’s cognisable that a candle can be lit, you can only have faith that it will create light. It’s not a superficial line, but the pastor utters it with the sort of nonchalance that suggests that he’s wise enough to know that there’s no talking faith into the heads of these science men.

Aval
Director: Milind Rau
Cast: Siddharth, Andrea, Atul Kulkarni, Anisha Victor

Almost every character benefits from the care taken to not just outline their personalities, but also shade the inside. The possessed girl, Jenny, isn’t just your average victim. She’s also one who’s romantically interested in doctor Krish, never mind his marriage. When Krish’s wife, Lakshmi, learns of this, you’d expect her to react with outrage. But this isn’t your average Tamil horror film. She’s in a secure relationship with him and so, just simply resorts to teasing him about Jenny’s advances. You go on to learn a lot more about Jenny herself. She likes reading horror books (she’s shown reading The Exorcist in the restroom), she wears goth makeup, she smokes the occasional secret cigarette, she prefers drugs to alcohol. You get most of this shading in one lovely no-dialogues sequence, as the psychiatrist walks around the house, sniffing out clues to learn more about her, and consequently, her condition.

It’s a literal use of ‘Show, don’t tell’, and it helps that the film is a feast for the eyes and the ears. The emphasis is not so much on the music, as it is on the sound. It’s almost bewitching in the hypnosis scene, when the slo-mo shot of a metronome ticker gets punctuated by what sounds like an echoing whiplash. Suffice it to say I was almost hypnotised. Big nod in the direction of the cinematographer Shreyaas Kishore and composer Girishh, and also in the direction of whoever cast the foreign actors for the flashback part. Our films have often had to contend with foreign actors who seem quite bemused that they are acting in a film. It’s a relief to see a man breathe as much menace as the Chinese actor does in the flashback sequence.

If I had to nitpick, I’d say that the jumpscares are generally predictably designed. The first one is a stand-out, but after that, you’re never truly jolted. I also had a few problems with some of the plot points. For instance, nobody seems to dwell on Jenny, the days after her jump into the well. Later on, Krish, who’s just seen the evil spirit unleash chaos in an exorcism, continues to, for some reason, not believe Lakshmi, when she confides in him about having encountered the ghost of a baby (what she actually sees is the half-formed decaying face of a bloodied baby). The eventual investigation into the flashback episode is itself a bit too simplified. An old woman, who’s apparently refused to talk about the events of that fateful day, suddenly decides to open up to strangers. But none of these are problems concerning enough to derail the film, which has one lovely understated twist that leaves you having to relook the whole story in new light, including the scene in which Krish, after realising that his wife’s pregnant, casually jokes, “Who’s the father?” The film’s even aware enough to answer the why-wont-these-people-leave-the-house question. Clearly, the makers have been perturbed by it too.

The dialogues – the subtle jokes especially – are as real people speak. When Krish tells the psychiatrist that he can’t drink for fear of his wife beating him up, the latter replies, “Can I come with you to watch?” In an earlier scene, when the psychiatrist talks about his plans to hyponotise Jenny, Krish is excited: “Oh, you’ll do that clock thing, right? Can I watch?” There’s also a running joke about how people seem oblivious to the fact that Krish is a doctor. Jenny explains the ‘upping’ effects of drugs to Krish, when the latter reminds her he’s a doctor. Later, Lakshmi tells him that the two lines on her pregnancy test means she’s pregnant. Krish again dryly says, “I’m a doctor, you know.” Well, Krish, maybe they keep forgetting because you still insist on stuffing a spoon into the mouth of a person suffering a seizure. It’s a debunked old wives’ tale, and if Krish, called ‘one of the country’s top brain experts’, doesn’t know that, well…

This review was written for Cinema Express, the cinema division of The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to its page if you’d like to share it.

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