Velugu Needalu
Ram Gopal Varma (part 4)
Srinivas Kanchibhotla

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Velugu Needalu
Here is the the series that focuses on the many greats who lurk in the shadows behind the silver screen bringing out the best in them, to radiate and redirect their brilliance onto the silver medium. We hope that these articles would focus our attention and applause to these true "stars" to whom limelight and spot lights do not usually beckon upon.

Cont'd from the 3rd part

Horror, contradicting the conventional wisdom, is all effect. In fact, humor and horror are two sides of the same coin, pain, even if they are two extreme opposite reactions instigated by the same cause. Horror can be because of any number of reasons - fear, malevolence, injustice, and yes, even humor (No better example than the classic 'Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron', which masks itself as a comedy, but is in fact a horror movie centering around human greed and institutional collusion and corruption). So when filmmakers pronounce that their film is a horror one, though the implication is automatic that the root of horror is in evil intent, it helps to have clarity, both for the makers and the audience, about the root cause of the horror. If the aim is merely to induce a reflexive shock (like reacting to a sudden scream, or from a 'boo' from behind the door), the effect of that 'horror' is as momentary as the skipped heart beat that resumes its normal operation the next moment the scare wears away. Surely, that might not had been the intent of RGV, to hand the audience over a horror candyfloss that melts away the moment it touches the tongue, but that's exactly what he ended up serving with 'rAtri', concentrating on the effect (effects, technical, lots of them) and paying so little attention to the cause so much so that the movie ended up becoming the first stumble in his then otherwise soaring career. Imagine the cycle chain sequence in 'Siva' moved into the very first confrontation scene between JD and Siva or Chandu recounting his cooked up childhood story to Satya causing her to utter the iconic line 'ఈ సినిమా నే చూసా! నువ్వు చెబుతూ ఉంటే ముందుగానే నాకు తెలిసి పోతా ఉంది!', within minutes of meeting her. The delaying of the effect was what that caused those scenes to work so well. And the necessary build up establishing the background for why JD deserved Siva's wrath or why everything that comes out of Chandu's mouth (who had just conned everyone, including the police) should be taken with a grain of salt, was why the effect of Siva's anger or Chandu's fabrication was so profound.

From the opening near uneding tracking shot of Revathi running around in a deserted village in sheer terror and panic (to establish her schizophrenia), down to the multitiude of individual scenes, all aimed at merely spooking the audience, with amped up visual and aural effects, RGV makes the classic mistake of appropriating horror for consequences. The most wrenching kind of horror is the misfortune of having to witness in utter helplessness the wasting away of someone near and dear, physically or emotionally. William Peter Blatty's novel "The Exorcist" is so little about the climactic rituals of the eponymous tradesman trying to rid the devil off the body of a little girl of a tender age. Instead it is about the gradual descent into madness one horrofic step at a time, both by the hapless kid and her helpless mother the former taken over by possession, the latter subsumed by grief. That is the real horror, the tragedy of it, when able bodied men and women could only stand back and do nothing, while the kid slips into 'self induced hypnotic insanity brought upon by chaotic domestic situation' (per her psychiatrist), or in plain speak, 'the cold embrace of the devil'. William Freidkin's fantastic adaptation of the novel wisely chooses to concetrate on the scenery around - a) the desperation of the mother running from pillar to post, from science to occult, from medical doctors to witch doctors, grasping at any available straw all for her tender daughter who was transforming right in front of eyes into a monster b) the exorcist and his apprentice who have issues of their own on personal guilt front, causing them to distrust their own instincts when confronting the devil, perplexed whether they are projecting their own fears on the subject c) the stand of the Catholic church on the issue of exorcism, of trying to sweep the whole pratice under the carpet in the modern society, particularly when confronted with the rapid strides in modern medicine in regard to psychology and physiology of the human body. All these forces at play, when a little child lays there tied down to her bed and wasting away by the day, makes the horror at once real and surreal.

The only other work of art that even comes close to the impact of "The Exorcist" (the novel and the movie) in telugu is Yandamuri's own "tulasi daLam", which borrows the structure of Blatty's novel but beautifully nativizes it, introducing to the telugu audience for the first time the tug of war between the provable and the unknowable. RGV's "rAtri" rightly sites its stake in "The Exorcist", but instead chooses to concentrate on the actual scare itself, leaving aside the even more powerful, painful and disturbing part of the whole madness, the helplessness, the desperation, and eventually the tragedy of it all. He almost seems to be influenced by the conversation between the exorcist and the apprentice during the climax of "The Exorcist", when the latter tries to apprise the former about the background and particulars of the case, and the exorcist cuts it short with a curt "Why?", as though saying that it doesn't really matter how the kid got there. The reason sounds poignant in that movie that had already set everything up nicely for the chilling finale, but "rAtri", which hits the ground running (scaring), literally, simply lacks the emotional resonance of its source material and therefore ends up only as a demonstration of his storng hold on the tehcnical aspects of the horror movie mechanics. THough he tried quite a few times later in his career to capture the essence of horror ('deyyam', 'bhoot', 'phoonk' and a few such), their box-office performances notwithstanding, this is one genre that always eluded his otherwise masterful understanding of the 'set up and build up' routine, which he put to great use in every other theme he dabbled in. None more so than in comedy, and none better than his production of "Money”.

Cont'd in the next part - RGV's first misstep - rAtri.

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