In a scene from Pretham, a mentalist called John Don Bosco guesses a man’s cellphone password simply by holding his hand. The cynical chap’s friend says excitedly: “Please do something similar with me.” Bosco replies without batting an eyelid: “What should I do? Rape you?” To which the said friend responds: “But I’m not a woman, no?” Sick!
Writer-director Ranjith Sankar positions this episode as light-hearted banter. Many scenes later, we witness Bosco fighting a moving battle on behalf of a woman targeted by voyeurism. Yes, the same Bosco who casually makes rape quips apparently feels strongly about the invasion of a woman’s privacy.
Does he have a split personality? No, Pretham does.
This is what happens when someone makes a “look at me, see how socially committed I am” kind of film without any genuine commitment.
Pretham is a supernatural thriller packaged in comedy. It is set in a gorgeous seaside resort in Kerala owned by three young men who have been friends since college. Shibu (played by Govind Padmasoorya) is a good-looking guy who takes Zumba classes at the resort and is having a Skype affair with his now-married ex-girlfriend. Denny Kokan (Aju Varghese) is a lecherous creep who leers at Shibu’s female Zumba students and tries to have a fling with one of them, a girl called Suhanissa played by the strikingly attractive Pearl Maaney. Priya Lal (Sharafudheen) is the simpleton of the group, smitten by Suhanissa.
Strange things start happening at the resort one day when Denny tries to shoot Suhanissa with his cellphone.
Is the place haunted? Or is a woman one of them misbehaved with trying to spook them? The answer comes in a surprising second half that is completely — and deliberately — at odds with the carefree tone of the first.
Pretham operates at two levels. The comedic elements actually work for the most part. The film scores with its delicious irreverence towards religion represented by the character Yesu (Dharmajan Bolgatty) who asks uncomfortable questions to a Christian priest and others.
The world needs more people who can let their hair down about faith, gods and goddesses. Pretham’s intelligent courage in that area is what makes its intermittently icky, if not thoroughly disgusting, attitude towards women so disappointing. Even before that horrendous rape remark, we are supposed to be entertained by Denny’s plan to secretly mix an aphrodisiac in Suhanissa’s drink. What next? Must we also laugh at boys slipping a roofie to a date?
The rape joke is especially obnoxious because it comes from Bosco, a man who is positioned as someone to be taken seriously within the universe of the film. Like him, Pretham’s attitude to women is confused and confusing. On the one hand it displays sensitivity in the denouement, on the other hand it treats Suhanissa in particular very trivially as a creature to be toyed with. Bosco, for instance, does not ask her to have a coffee with him, he ogles her to her face and asks if she will have “coffee, very hot coffee” (note the emphasis please). I almost expected him to lick his lips as he stared at her in that scene. Yuck!
Suhanissa is positioned as the kind of girl who would be described by conservative north Indians as “uss type ki ladki (that kind of girl)” and across most parts of India as the kind of girl you take to bed but not home to your mother. Read: an easy lay because, you know, her hair is permed, she is Westernised, she does Zumba, holds hands with men, goes into rooms alone with them, embraces men she is fond of without considering it a big deal and is sexually assertive when she meets a guy she likes… hawww, chhee, must definitely be “that type”, no?
All four men are very different in the film’s thriller strand, more mature, sobre and decent. These strangely inconsistent stances dilute the apparent intent of the film: to amuse, to scare and to make a point.
The change in tenor from comedy to whodunit as the story progresses is well handled and the big reveal in the end is unexpected. It succeeds despite the red herrings thrown in our direction. One of them involving a woman at the resort is rather intelligently dealt out, while others — suspended lamps moving in the dark, a resort employee appearing to be possessed — are stupid since no explanation is provided for them in the end.
Pretham makes multiple references to earlier Malayalam films in the horror genre, though the most telling mention of the lot is the 1978 classic Lisa. Keep in mind though that although this film has a supernatural element it is not, strictly speaking, a horror flick — it is at no point meant to be as frightening as it is meant to be suspenseful.
Pretham’s casting is spot on. Jayasurya brings gravitas to his role as Bosco and is a perfect foil to the three goofy friends at the centre of the drama. Padmasoorya, Varghese and Sharafudheen are natural actors. They share an easy chemistry and come across as real-life friends rather than actors playing roles.
The film is a mixed bag on the technical front. Most spaces in Pretham are inexplicably deserted. I recall spotting guests at the resort just once, and a college complex seems devoid of humans when Bosco first visits it. In another tech department though, Pretham comes up trumps: the film’s waterfront setting is stunning, and cinematographer Jithu Damodar exploits it to the hilt without appearing obsessive. The opening shot of the sea made me long for my next visit to God’s Own Country.
Pretham is a partly effective paranormal thriller-cum-comedy, diluted by its mixed-up attitude to women and an ugly rape quip.
Footnote on the subtitles: At one point one of the lead trio addresses an elderly neighbour sarcastically as “Ammachi”. This is a respectful Malayalam form of address for an older woman that, in this instance, is being used like some people might mockingly use “Aunty”. That’s all very well, but the subtitling team translated “Ammachi” to “you old hag”. Errr, even when Ammachi and Aunty are used as ageist taunts, neither word is ever as crude as “hag”.