(Note: If you have not seen “Trance” you wouldn’t be able to make head or tail of this review as I have tried my best to refrain from narrating a synopsis)
Starring: Fahad Fazil, Nazriya Nazim, Sreenath Bhasi, Chemban Vinod, Vinayakan, Gautam Vasudev, Dileesh Pothan
Direction: Anwar Rasheed
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
- Karl Marx (A Contribution to Hegel’s Philosophy of right)
It is a cliche, for an atheist to begin a review of a movie which relies on religious critique as a theme, with the most popular quote by Marx on religion. A quote which is often used out of context, far away from a Marxian analysis of religion. I have continued the long tradition. Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.
The movie revolves around the life of Viju Prashad/ Joshua Carlton (Fahad Fazil) as Motivational speaker/ Preacher. This complete reliance on a single character results in other characters being caricatured/ stereotyped.
The movie can be neatly divided into three segments, which can be made into individual movies in their own right. The life of a motivational speaker with his brother (Sreenath Bhasi), who suffers from bouts of depression; The life of a preacher who makes quite a lot of money by questionable means; The complicated relationship between Joshua Carlton & Esther Lopez which pops up as an intermittent segment & ends up as the tail of the movie.
Sreenath Bhasi’s act, though only for a few minutes leaves a lasting impression in the first short segment. Though short, the segment makes a point that depression is an illness and cannot be cured by positivity/will power alone, by juxtaposing Viju Prasad, who is a motivational speaker vis-a-vis his brother in depression. While the segment has time-compressed to an extreme level, from my imagination as a viewer, I can feel that stretched at a movie level, the segment can make a much-wanted movie about mental health issues.
In particular, the two minutes showing Viju Prashad and his brother in their younger selves is one of the most intensive tragi-poetic segment I have seen in recent films.
In the second segment, Viju Prashad is rechristened as Joshua Carlton aka JC (to resemble Jesus Christ). This is the segment which rakes up a myriad of questions.
Can Pentecostalism be termed as a cult? No. However, the flexible nature of Pentecostalism vis-a-vis other denominations which have been institutionalized/ ritualized offers a fertile ground for a cult leader to amass followers in a short span of time.
A faceless corporation is used as a plot device instead of forming a narration on cult formation and indoctrination. It would not be far fetched to say that the faceless corporation is the deus ex machina of the movie. By doing this and almost cutting directly to Joshua Carlton on stage, the film has missed out an opportunity to delve deep into the psyche of believer and preacher.
The display of flamboyant lifestyle of the new age pastors & the stress on prosperity gospel (which is a blatant capitalist gospel that stands against liberation theology) had hit the bullseye. While I could not find any investigative journalism on Indian Evangelicals, please see the below video to understand the hold of Televangelists on believers in the US.
While the film takes enough care to capture the antics of miracle healing, glossolalia (or gibberish, to be exact), & particularly the effects of lighting setups, flooding the floor with music & other sensations on worshippers, the film fails in analysing the minds of believer and preacher, ending up as a film lacking depth.
A fine example would be Thomas (Vinayakan), who loses his daughter because of his extreme reliance on faith-healing. He cannot afford to take up arms. As a believer, he will rationalise his belief in any possible way rather than going against it and suffering another psychological loss. Instead, he too is used as a plot device to tie up any loose ends.
The segment with Esther Lopez seems to be an unrelated sub plot, which could have made another, even better film with some imagination. The tail end of the film, dipped in red, reminds one of Wong Kar Wai. But one does not become Wong Kar Wai by simply mimicking his colour palette.