Trance movie review: Fahadh Faasil's manic energy lends an edge to an initially promising, ultimately undeserving script
Trance seems less pre-occupied with depth and more concerned about impressing the audience with its cool camera angles.
castFahadh Faasil, Sreenath Bhasi, Soubin Shahir, Nazriya Nazim Fahadh, Gautham Vasudev Menon, Chemban Vinod Jose, Dileesh Pothan, Vinayakan, Arjun Ashokan
How can a film descend so dramatically from being profound, poignant and quirky pre-interval to shallow, stretched, sterile and repetitive thereafter?
Director Anwar Rasheed's Trance takes off brilliantly. Fahadh Faasil plays Viju Prasad, an aspiring motivational speaker talent-spotted by a large corporation and transformed into a religious preacher. The early scenes of Viju in Kanyakumari trying to establish himself in his profession even while struggling to financially and emotionally support his mentally unwell brother are moving. They are also an uncommon blend of quiet yet wacko.
Fahadh dazzles throughout the film, but in the first half he gets to sink his ravenous actor's teeth into a meaty script. Those manic eyes camouflaged from the world reveal themselves only when he is alone. In his avatar as a pastor, he explodes on stage with a matching manic energy. Those scenes in front of a mirror teeter on the edge of resembling his character Shammi's signature scene in Kumbalangi Nights, but Fahadh has a distinctive touch that turns them into a tribute and a nod to that iconic 2019 film instead of a copy.
The first half of Trance is also enriched by the presence of Sreenath Bhasi in a brief role as Viju's troubled sibling Kunjan. Bhasi is less celebrated than Fahadh in Mollywood but he is, without question, one of this industry's most gifted actors. In the little time he gets on screen, he makes Kunjan an understated mix of fearful and fearsome, fond of Viju yet possibly resentful towards him because he is conscious - without ever having been taunted - of being a burden on his protective, devoted elder brother. What lies beneath that boyish facade one cannot quite tell, and Bhasi makes the character intriguing.
It is heartening that for a second year in a row, Malayalam cinema has made the effort to dwell on mental health, a theme that Indian cinema at large neglects.
The time spent on Viju and Kunjan's relationship is the best written, best directed part of Trance.
The other is the electric interaction between Viju and a journalist called Mathews (Soubin Shahir) in a TV studio. The latter is in top form as a man pretending to be what he is not, quite like Viju.
Vincent Vadakkan's screenplay excels too in its initial depictions of the machinations and manipulations at play when a wolf in preacher's clothing stands on a stage working a frenzied mob of the faithful. Those passages are enthralling and oftentimes hilarious. After the interval though, similar scenes are repeatedly rolled out with little that is new being added to what has already been shown and said. By then the downhill slide is well and truly underway.
This is when it becomes noticeable that apart from Viju and Kunjan, there is absolutely no detailing in the writing of the rest of the players in Trance. Among others, Gautham Vasudev Menon, Chemban Vinod Jose and Dileesh Pothan are victims of one-note characterisation. The first two are evil representatives of a corporate giant, the latter is their amoral lackey — that is it, there is nothing more to them.
The low point of Trance though is the token female presence provided by Nazriya Nazim Fahadh.
(Some readers may deem certain parts of this paragraph spoilers) Nazriya's decidedly marginal character, Esther Lopez, is brought in by the villains to be Viju aka Pastor Joshua Carlton's secretary, to get close to him and unearth certain information about him. Obviously a regular professional would not serve their purpose. The recruiter is asked to shed light on Esther's murky background, and she offers this cryptic explanation: "the usual - boyfriend scene." OMG, she had a - you do not want your children hearing this - b.o.y.f.r.i.e.n.d.? When the lady explains herself, we learn that by "boyfriend scene" she meant that Esther fell in love, was ditched, took to alcohol and drugs, and perhaps has a child. (Spoiler alert ends)
The film is straining at this point to appear cool, but unwittingly betrays the writer's biases - biases, it must be said, that are not unknown to commercial Malayalam cinema. This is a world in which sweet, young, innocent-looking women look sad immediately after sex. Because to a conservative mind, sorrow is a woman's natural reaction to sex, even when consensual? Insert eye-roll emoji here. There is nothing to indicate that Esther Lopez is an assumed name, so it must also be asked why she could not have been a Marykutty Jose, Parvathy Rajendran or Shazia Mohammed. Was this a sub-conscious choice? What point was being conveyed by writing this alcohol-swilling drug addict as a woman with a decidedly Anglo-Indian sounding name who lives in Mumbai and has a Hindi line from a song playing in the background in her introductory scene?
Boss, all the slickness in the world - production design: Ajayan Chalissery, music: Sushin Shyam and Jackson Vijayan, camerawork: Amal Neerad - cannot camouflage your innate prejudice and traditionalism or the fact that in the second half you have allowed style to trump depth.
There is so much promise in the first half of Trance in its depiction of religion as an opioid. The second half though, completely fails to take that substantial beginning forward. A sub-plot involving Vinayakan has potential but its soul is overshadowed by production polish.
More important, if the goal was to probe corruption in religion and the exploitation of gullible devotees, then by zeroing in on a niche Christian group rather than mainstream Christianity or for that matter Hinduism or Islam, Rasheed and Vadakkan have taken a comparatively less risky path. As far as the writing challenge goes, ridiculing an overtly madcap religious sect that flails its arms about while screaming "Hallelujah" and Praise the Lord" is relatively easy. Investigating such a group, since it is off-mainstream, is also politically safer than delving into the mind games, questionable finances and regressiveness of a more widely recognised sect from any one of the major world religions with a presence in Kerala.
Even within the space occupied by smaller, corporatised churches, Trance ends up being superficial. For a more insightful take on such organisations, check out the admittedly soapish but nevertheless insightful American series Greenleaf on Netflix.
In the end, in any case Trance seems less pre-occupied with depth and more concerned about impressing the audience with its cool camera angles. When a man kills another, I was too distracted by the blood drops falling in slow motion into a transparent drink to be disturbed by his motivations. And the film's epilogue-like closing in which a gallant dude rescues a woman who was making no effort to rescue herself (because what else can a paavam girl do but wait around for Lochinvar on his white horse?) seems to have been thrown in only as an excuse to take the story to foreign lands.
I cannot believe that Trance was made by the director of one of my all-time favourite Malayalam films, Ustad Hotel. Next time cook that script some more, please.
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