This is the Tamil version of the same story that was re-made in Hindi as 2007's Bhool Bhulaiyaa, which I'm a huge fan of (especially its soundtrack, which is one of my favorites). There's also a 2004 Kannada version called Apthamitra, also directed by Chandramukhi's P. Vasu, and a 2005 Bengali one called Rajmohol, but I haven't tracked those down yet. Most people believe that the original 1993 Malayalam film Manichithrathazhu is the best of the bunch, and I've finally found a source, so I'll be able to judge for myself soon. Fingers crossed for subtitles!
The story goes: a young married couple moves with their disapproving extended family into an estate that's said to be haunted by the spirit of Chandramukhi, a beautiful, long-ago dancing girl, who was wronged by a tyrannical king. The secret room is opened, mysterious things start happening, and the family begins to suspect one of the young women is possessed by the spirit, and out for bloody revenge. Fortunately, a family friend/foster brother is an esteemed, if somewhat eccentric psychiatrist, who works in cahoots with a priest to solve the case.
Like any intelligent person, Chandramukhi's star, Rajnikanth, goes right to the library to investigate the house. Even though I know I couldn't read any of the books in it, I still want to dive right into those stacks.
His main source is a very cool antique book (with a trishul lock!) that contains the history of the mansion. We get a good look at it, and it's called Vettaiyapuram Samasdhanam, by Thoti Tharrani. That's actually the film's set designer! He worked on Kanthaswamy, too.
The two movies are structured rather differently -- in Chandramukhi, Rajnikanth is set up as the indestructible hero from the very beginning, unlike Akshay Kumar's Bhool Bhulaiyaa hero, who turns up midway through. Rajnikanth apparently attended the same school of manly, two-fisted psychiatry that Feroz Khan went to in the seventies, since he's first seen beating up a whole gang of bullying construction company rivals. He also reads minds, just from the looks on people's faces. The character is openly considered a "Super Star," whereas Kumar's interpretation is that of a goofy guy nobody takes seriously, who then turns out to be smarter than anyone thinks.
However, both movies are great examples of architectural porn, set in some of the most gorgeous abandoned mansions I've ever seen on film.
Even the cobwebs are pretty.
(There's a spoiler coming, so beware!)
When the relatively modern young bride, Ganga, convinces Durga, the gardener's granddaughter, to help her get into the amulet-covered room where the dancer's soul is supposedly imprisoned, Durga is reticent at first. But before long, the two secretly get a key made, and both seem excited by the infusion of a mystery into their lives. (Hmm -- what would a Hindi Nancy Drew story look like?) The picture of these two lovely young women, going up some dark stairs and opening a forbidden door, to find forbidden knowledge, is downright archetypal. The whole idea of forbidden knowledge is as Gothic as it gets, even if it hadn't come with the accompanying spooky ambiance.
As in the well-known Bluebeard variation on the theme, when the young women seek knowledge for themselves, what they find is horrible knowledge. And as in the majority of Gothic stories, the mystery is related to the past, about a history that they hadn't known about before. In opening the door, they discover violence, fear, and, usually, the fact that they are themselves in danger. All the things, in short, that a "sheltered" life prevented them from knowing before. But the fact of being sheltered didn't make them safe.
One of the reasons being sheltered doesn't work is clearly illustrated in both these films: when the door to the forbidden room is opened, one of the women opens a door into the darker part of her own imagination, where her submerged emotional and psychological problems exist. It's not possible to protect her from herself.
Yup, that's a giant snake on a chandelier.
Coincidentally, this was released on Sri Balaji Video, a company that has its own devotional opening, which is a very nice touch.
Among the many characters, there's a young, smug, buff guy who's always standing behind the matriarch. The camera always pans up to him, making him look vaguely sinister. Just as I was getting all "Who is that guy?" he took off his shirt (revealing very nice abs) and attacked Rajnikanth the night of an engagement party. Apparently he's Auntie's personal henchman -- and why don't I have one to menace my nieces and nephews with?
I've recently watched two Tamil movies, only my second and third (after Kandukondain Kandukondain), and they both had Prabhu for comic relief. Turns out he's the son of the famous Sivaji Ganesan. On the comic relief scale, I found him more tolerable than, say, Rajpal Yadav in Bhool Bhulaiyaa.
Also: this was my first Rajnikanth movie, and while he was good in the role, I think I've heard too much about him, so was expecting a little more. I'm looking forward to seeing more of his iconic films, especially since, along with Frank Sinatra, we share a birthday! Obviously, that's an auspicious date.