Literarily Speaking: Aashiq Abu’s Neelavelicham (2023) is based on Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s short story, and inspired by A. Vincent’s Bhargavi Nilayam (1964)
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Vaikom Muhammad Basheer (1908-1994) holds a special place in the hearts of readers of Malayalam fiction. His timeless stories are full of wit and colloquial expression, that reveal his keen eye for the human condition. Aashiq Abu’s upcoming Neelavelicham (2023) draws attention to the iconic Bhargavi Nilayam (1964), known to be the first horror movie in Malayalam based on a script by Basheer himself. Both movies are based on Basheer’s short story, Neelavelicham.
The writer as the protagonist
It is not known whether Basheer employed an author surrogate – an ingenious meta device to insert himself as a protagonist, or whether the story is simply written in the first person by an unnamed Writer. All we know is that in both the short story and Bhargavi Nilayam, the writer’s quest for a house that is ideal to pursue his writing ends with Bhargavi Nilayam. However, his troubles had only just begun.
Once the Writer pays the rent in advance for two months, he finds that people become unnerved when he mentions the name of the house. He is told that Bhargavi, after whom the house is named, was a young woman who faced failure in love and killed herself by plunging into the well in the backyard. The house has since been rumoured to be haunted by her man-hating spirit. He is warned about doors and windows that bang shut automatically, the sound of water flowing from taps, and the sound of anklets. The Writer is unperturbed and proclaims that he may as well write about this spirit who has possessed the house.
The Writer cheekily introduces himself to Bhargavi as an impoverished writer with no place to go, seeking her cooperation for him to stay in the house. The Writer wakes up the next morning, and in elation at being still alive, tells Bhargavi that she can help herself to his books, his LP records, or even ride his bicycle.
Apart from a mysterious character who is observing the Writer in the movie, and the incident of the lantern in the book, it is from this point on that the movie proceeds beyond the book.
Bhargavi Nilayam (1964)
In his lifetime, Basheer wrote the screenplay for two of his stories. One was Bhargavi Nilayam (1964), and the other was Balyakalasakhi (1967). For Bhargavi Nilayam, he expanded on the short story by adding segments from his other writings beyond the Writer (Madhu) and included a flashback about Bhargavi (Vijaya Nirmala) and her beau, Shashi Kumar (Prem Nazir), making it as much a tale of romance as it is a horror story.
We are shown that an invisible hand, Bhargavi’s, begins to move things in the house. The Writer finds a locked box with B written on it in a bat-infested unused room along with Bhargavi’s portrait and a sitar with SK written on it, which he presumes is Shashi Kumar’s gift to her. There is an attempt to steal the contents of the box, a cache of letters, but the Writer has hidden it in anticipation of it being stolen by the mysterious man whom he has noticed.
The Writer decides to investigate Bhargavi’s story to dispel the misconception that she killed herself. Meanwhile, the Writer seeks Bhargavi’s assent to let a man called Cheriya Pareekanni (Adoor Bhasi) work for him, promising that they would clear the yard and plant a garden there. Cheriya Pareekanni talks to Bhargavi just like the Writer does, and addresses her as ‘Kochamme’.
It is only here that we realise that the Writer’s conversations with Bhargavi may have simply been his way to fend off isolation. Although the mystery of Bhargavi’s life and death does intrigue the Writer, maybe he didn’t believe there was a ghost until Cheriya Pareekanni normalises the presence of Bhargavi, and the Writer finally ‘sees’ Bhargavi’s spirit.
When the Writer reads out his initial speculation on Bhargavi’s life, her enraged spirit burns the pages. But late one night, while deeply engrossed in writing, the kerosene in his lamp runs out. The Writer rushes to a friend’s house to borrow some but ends up taking shelter from the rain there for a few hours. On his return home he finds to his surprise, that although his door is locked just as he had left it, the lantern inside the room is aglow. This could be interpreted as a sign of encouragement by Bhargavi’s spirit when the Writer has pieced together an accurate story from different sources.
The Writer imagines the romance between the winsome Bhargavi and her music composer neighbour Shashi Kumar that bloomed over a property wall (much like in Basheer’s story, Mathilukal). They are besotted with each other, and their relationship is portrayed as one with much adoration, mirth and lovers’ tiffs, all aided by her domestic worker called Kuthiravattom Pappu (Padmadalakshan).
Meanwhile, Bhargavi’s cousin, Nanukuttan (P.J. Antony), who wanted to marry her, is distraught at the developing relationship between Bhargavi and Shashi Kumar. He parallelly befriends Shashi Kumar to find out more about him, in order to separate the lovers.
At the end of the movie, when the Writer is attacked by the mysterious man, we are unsurprised when his identity is revealed. Did the Lucknow-bound Shashi Kumar truly abandon Bhargavi? And was Bhargavi suicidal on being jilted by Shashi Kumar, as is commonly believed?
Bhargavi Nilayam was the directorial debut of cinematographer A. Vincent, and the visuals are skillfully crafted by utilising light and shadow to heighten the horror in this black-and-white movie. The background score by MS Baburaj and the timeless songs composed by him portray different shades of love, from a frolicsome ‘Anuraagamadhuchashakam’, to the duet, ‘Arabikkadaloru’, and from the haunting ‘Pottaathu Ponnin’ to the ardent ‘Thaamasamende Varuvan’. The writer protagonist gets his song, ‘Ekaanthathayude’ that reflects the ebb and flow of emotions in him as he delves deeper into Bhargavi’s story.
Going by the promotions and songs, the upcoming Neelavelicham (2023) is indeed a period film and Aashiq Abu has chosen not to contemporise it. Fans of Bhargavi Nilayam’s atmospheric background score and songs composed by MS Baburaj will inevitably compare the updated version in light of the controversy over the reuse of the music. Four of the songs from Bhargavi Nilayam – ‘Thaamasamende varuvan’, ‘Anuragamadhuchashakam’, ‘Ekaanthathayude’ and ‘Pottaatha Ponnin’ have been refreshed by Bijibal and Rex Vijayan.
More importantly, while Neelavelicham appears to be a near-faithful adaptation of Bhargavi Nilayam, Aashiq Abu is bound to bring a new perspective to this beloved story with Hrishikesh Bhaskaran’s contribution to Basheer’s original screenplay. One hopes that the depiction of evil being dark-skinned has been remedied in Neelavelicham.
The horror genre has come a long way from the 1960s both in the plot as well as treatment, and the reimagined Neelavelicham will have to either employ additional characters as suspects or focus on the romance between Bhargavi and Shashi Kumar to anchor the story, even as it serves as a tribute to Vaikom Muhammad Basheer.
(Views expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of OTTplay)
(Written by Saritha Rao Rayachoti)