‘Trance’: Examining the sway of belief

Rihan Najib | Updated on March 13, 2020

Under a spell: Fahadh Faasil delivers a compelling performance as a spiritual leader in Trance   -  IMAGE COURTESY: FACEBOOK/ TRANCE

Not even Fahadh Faasil in ‘Trance’ can save an overwrought morality tale from losing its way in a cinematic fog

In recent times, audiences have been treated to unflinching portrayals of the industrial complex based on faith. Shows such as Wild Wild Country (2018) and On Becoming a God in Central Florida (2019) explored how belief was a potently lucrative commodity, but with devastating consequences for the believer. This story is revisited in the Malayalam film Trance, told not from the perspective of the believer, but that of a prophet — one who is in equal parts perpetrator and puppet.

Directed by Anwar Rasheed, making a return to direction after a gap of six years, Trance, in the works since mid-2017, went through multiple delays in its release, increasing public anticipation around the film. Rasheed, known for directing the immensely popular Ustad Hotel (2012) and producing other hits such as Bangalore Days (2014) and Premam (2015), put together a stellar cast for his latest, not least of them being Fahadh Faasil, Malayalam cinema’s most consistently bankable star in recent times.

Fresh from the pan-India success of Kumbalangi Nights (2019) and Super Deluxe (2019), Faasil offers a memorable performance in Trance. But the film is testament to how not even Faasil’s luminous eyes can save an overwrought morality tale from drowning in the great gulf of cinematic incomprehension.

It opens with Viju Prasad (Faasil), a small-time motivational speaker who also works as a waiter in Kanyakumari. Viju’s childhood is scarred by his mother’s suicide, making him the earnest carer for his younger brother, Kunjan, who grows up with a chronic and often violent psychological illness.

Essayed convincingly by Sreenath Bhasi (of Kumbalangi Nights fame), Kunjan grows weary of his own mercurial mental condition. No longer wishing to burden his older brother, he hangs himself. Reeling with grief and tormented by memories, Viju becomes an insomniac and eventually relocates to Mumbai to start life anew. Desperate to make ends meet in an unfamiliar city, Viju encounters a shadowy businessman, Solomon Davis, through a job interview. Seen to be a suitable candidate for Solomon’s project, the former motivational speaker and waiter is anointed with a new identity — that of Father Joshua Carlton (abbreviated to JC in order to evoke Jesus Christ).

Backed by a rigorous spell of theological training under Solomon’s associate Avaraachan (Dileesh Pothan) as well as Viju’s own natural charisma, Joshua Carlton rapidly becomes the face of an ever-expanding empire based on Christian spiritual healing that uses faith as a decoy for decidedly underhand dealings. At the height of his power and popularity, Joshua’s missteps prove to be too costly for Solomon’s firm, leading to a violent fallout. Thereafter, the film just... derails.

The plot meanders through various twists and sub-narratives that follow a well-worn path — how every Malayalam film villain has a bloody reckoning at the hands of the righteous. However, with a run-time of 170 minutes, one does get tired of watching Faasil do emotional acrobatics with his eyes for nearly three hours.

The early shots that frame Viju’s struggling world and circumstances are arguably the best scenes in the film, proving yet again Rasheed’s capacity for creating detailed inner lives for his characters, compelling in its cinematography and direction.

It’s in the depiction of evil that the film falters — offering us cartoonish one-note nemeses whose sole motive and manifestation are sin. Gautham Menon and Chemban Vinod Jose, who play the antagonists Solomon and Isaac respectively, have nothing much to do apart from wearing sharp suits and issuing threats of bodily harm.

Nazriya Nazim, Faasil’s real-life spouse, makes a late entry in the film as Esther Lopez, a model with an unhappy past who hovers around without a discernible plot or purpose. The scenes that establish Esther involve her taking swigs from a bottle of alcohol and long drags on joints, as if we are expected to collectively go “haaaww so bad” at her supposed moral bankruptcy. She has been enlisted by Solomon to get closer to Joshua in order to control the errant pastor’s actions. But what follows is a confusing non-chemistry between the two — without a trace of the mutual affection that made their pairing in Bangalore Days so notable. Further note has to be made of the abysmal waste of Soubin Shahir and Dileesh Pothan, two of Malayalam cinema’s finer actors, in roles that neither suit them nor challenge their vast talent.

The film’s undoing is in just how seriously it takes itself. It casts itself not just as visual spectacle but also virtuous social commentary. Much is made of Viju’s arc of redemption, but it comes with unrealistic ease, as though consequences for one’s actions are for lesser mortals. The film-maker has made many odd choices with plot and writing that can’t be papered over even with the slickness of the visuals. Nevertheless, at a time when a spiritual guru such as Mata Amritanandamayi is made lead author of a peer-reviewed scientific article out of the devotion of her followers, and alleged sex offender Swami Nityananda ducks prosecution to establish his own island-haven, Trance thumbs its nose at the nexus of faith and money.

For fans of Faasil’s trademark brand of acting, the film is a three-hour-long treat. But for others, it’s yet another poorly executed morality play with a ludicrous special-effects budget.

Published on March 13, 2020

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