"Thalakunichchu jeevikkunna oru thalamura" (a generation that lives with its head bowed) " an exasperated father hisses out these words in Chathur Mukham (The Fourth Face) as he watches his daughter Thejaswini bent over her cellphone and communicating with the entire world except the fond parent seated beside her.
Thejaswini (played by Manju Warrier) is a social media junkie whose entire existence is on display on Instagram. She is also an entrepreneur. Strange things start happening when she buys a new cellphone one day. Messages she did not type are sent in her name, her selfies contain elements that are not in the actual spaces where those photos were clicked, and when she tries to get rid of the instrument, it virtually attacks her.
To find a solution to Thejaswini's problem, her close friend and business partner Antony (Sunny Wayne) approaches the scientist Clement (Alencier Ley Lopez).
The first half of Chathur Mukham features a few seriously scary passages, but as the narrative progresses it becomes more intriguing than conventionally frightening. Even though the film has been promoted as "the first techno horror in south Indian cinema", the gradual lessening of the scare factor did not bother me much as a viewer because Chathur Mukham has other lures up its sleeve.
Manju Warrier in a still from Chathur Mukham
The spook in this supernatural drama is a delightful metaphor for what cellphone and social media addiction are doing to our lives. In this scenario, it is no small statement on how capitalists cash in on human weakness that these words from Apple's founder Steve Jobs painted on the wall of Thejaswini and Antony's office stares down at us through large parts of the narrative, "People do not know what they want until you show them," >(some readers might consider the rest of this sentence a spoiler) even as the seemingly haunted cellphone is so determined to stay with Thejaswini that the effort to remove it from her life nearly kills her. >(Spoiler alert ends)
Writers Abhayakumar K and Anil Kurian are as focused on small details as they are on the macro picture they paint. Even the name they choose for the cellphone brand Thejaswini buys, Liza, has significance in the genre that Chathur Mukham occupies. While watching this thriller I could not help but recall Lisa, the 1978 Malayalam horror classic that starred Seema as a woman who returns to this world after her death to punish the men whose plot to rape her led to her end.
Sunny Wayne and Manju Warrier
There are parallels and contrasts to be drawn between Lisa and Thejaswini. The latter is in any case an interesting character study. She is an atypical Mollywood heroine " smart, enterprising, and in the face of family pressure, upholds her conviction that a woman needs an education and economic stability before even considering marriage.
The source of her tension with her brother and her parents is one strand that is unsatisfactorily dealt with in the storyline. That apart, the characterisation and treatment of Thejaswini are carefully thought out and well-executed. Note how directors Ranjeet Kamala Sankar and Salil V give her an introductory scene befitting her primacy in the storyline and Manju's stature in the film industry, without the ridiculous close-ups of shoes and sunglasses, slow motion and loud music that are mainstream Mollywood's formula for male stars' opening scenes in big-budget commercial ventures. She is asthmatic but instead of using her constant companion, her inhaler, as a horror film trope, Chathur Mukham simply underlines this woman's remarkable strength despite her serious physical ailment.
Writers Abhayakumar and Anil do not feel driven to initiate a romance between the heroine and hero in Chathur Mukham or even to indicate the presence of a romantic partner on the sidelines in either character's sub-story. How nice it is to see two Malayalam films in succession " this one and the recent release, Cold Case, starring Prithviraj Sukumaran and Aditi Balan " acknowledging the possibility that a man and woman can be bosom pals and/or professional associates without necessarily being attracted to each other, and that a human being is not incomplete or uninteresting without a romance somewhere in the vicinity, both elements that distinguish these films from most mainstream cinema across India and the rest of the world.
Manju Warrier for her part is thoroughly immersed in her role as Thejaswini. And Sunny Wayne lends his naturally likeable persona to Antony.
Niranjana Anoop and Manju Warrier
While the leads and most supporting players are well-rounded, Thejaswini's friend Safia (Niranjana Anoop) feels cursorily written. Chathur Mukham tides over such occasional glitches with storytelling that hums along consistently without being predictable, and with the manner in which it links the paranormal activity in the script to the scientific dictum declared loud and clear by Clement at the start: "Energy can neither be created nor be destroyed. Energy can only be transferred from one form to another." The measure of a successful fantasy or ghost flick is its ability to draw even a die-hard rationalist (*the writer of this review raises her hand*) into its premise and Chathur Mukham scores on that front.
Chathur Mukham was one of the films released theatrically during the COVID19 pandemic, that struggled to get an audience in the circumstances. Now that it has dropped on Zee5, despite starring the formidable Manju Warrier it has been overshadowed by the raging debate over abortion sparked off by Sara's (which also stars Sunny Wayne) and the resounding buzz around Malik. Chathur Mukham is unassuming in comparison with these two, but no less worthy of the spotlight.
What sealed the deal for me with this film is its consistent approach to its protagonist. Antony never overshadows Thejaswini in the way men are too often allowed to do in cinema that is sold as "women-centric", yet he is not relegated to irrelevance either in the way women are marginalised in mainstream men-centric films.
Antony remains Thejaswini's unflinching ally from beginning to end, without for even a moment metamorphosing into her saviour, protector and gallant knight in shining armour on a white horse in Chathur Mukham. I spent much of the film's second half dreading the possibility that it would transform itself into a Varathan at least in the climax, but¦whew!¦the sweat of relief doth now flow down my brow.
Rating: 3 (out of 5 stars)
Chathur Mukham is streaming on Zee5.