Continuity Errors and Thoicha 2

Natalidita Ningthoukhongjam *

This week, I intend to break character by doing away with my standard tradition of starting with an epigraph, and of responding to cultural perceptions. Something devastating has occurred recently to put me off balance, namely, the Manipuri movie Thoicha 2. I watched it two nights ago against repeated warnings and protests. "It is bad," they told me. "It is not at all scary." That didn't deter me; I had faith in the filmmakers and, above all, in Tonthoi.

Tonthoi did not disappoint. She is an actor of such calibre that it is difficult to find fault with her. There is nothing in the way she delivers her expressions and dialogue that seems affected. Her roles are a natural extension of herself. It showed, too, in the interview they had added as a DVD extra: she is completely absorbed and rather startlingly fearless. Needless to say, I was excited, only to realise within the first fifteen minutes that Tonthoi alone cannot carry a movie, especially when everything else is working against her.

The main culprit was not the unimaginative horror scenes, many of which have already been done to death in movies belonging to the genre. Nor was it the rambling screenplay, which could not hold the continuity that sequels as a rule are supposed to bear, and which was diseased with a lot of unnecessary bits. The editing - slack and blunt at the same time - should not be blamed entirely either. It was a combination of all these factors, and more. The lack of character development, the distractedness of Sadananda's role, and the slapdash nature of the ending: To Be Continued. (A narrative, even if it is a sequel, must have a complete story arc of its own.)

The underuse of all the talented actors, who would have given us memorable characters if only the script had provided them the chance. The biggest disappointment, however, was the shift in tone.

What was the secret of the original's success, in terms of cinematic achievement? The screenplay was strong, crisp and focussed. Each incident was intimately related, leading up to a chilling final scene. The characters' motives and actions made sense, and few of them were of the cookie-cutter variety. More importantly, the horror element worked, because the story effectively played on certain fears that are inherent in our culture.

Thoicha's possession by unearthly powers is a staple of folklore. The misunderstood fear that culminates in her tragic death is familiar to us. The exodus from the village, the rampant killings carried out by her undead spirit in the name of revenge, are both terrifying and justifiable.

An outsider might not be shocked the way I was when I saw Thoicha's body perched on the rafter. He might laugh when he sees her dancing in the pond, held within a trance which makes her oblivious to the surroundings. He might not experience the same feeling of unease I got when Thoicha stalked behind Sadananda in his dream, her inhuman pace caught by his lantern. Perhaps, all he would notice is the breaking out of some black magic, and an unfortunate, pasty ghost going on a murderous spree.

But a Meitei would watch the movie differently, and react differently as well. How many times have we grown up listening to tales based on haunted bamboo groves? Our childhood is littered with ghost stories of possessed women with supernatural abilities, of wronged souls trapped on earth because their vengeance is still to be exacted.

The original Thoicha played with such common fears and gave us a movie that was not only scared but was relatable. It was serious in its tone, making us care for the people involved in the story. It utilised atmosphere to great effect. It was both a drama and a horror movie.

Thoicha 2 seems to have sacrificed almost everything that would have worked in its favour. So, the setting has been changed. The story has to move on. Thoicha is now in Imphal city, unmindful of the fact that she is already dead. In spite of reminders coming from many, many directions, she refuses to accept this. Really? Her thirst for revenge may have been sated, but where does this inability to cope with death spring from? When did she lose all her anger?

A closer examination of her transformation would have made a stimulating first half of the tale, and joined the two movies better. Instead, the only indication of a connection between the two tales is Ibohal's (Sadananda) short-lived and unconvincing winces of regret. In fact, Ibohal's feelings for Thoicha are confusing, just as his behaviour towards the other girl is ambiguous; they are hardly examined, just presented without passion or clarity.

For all we know, Thoicha's punishment for the villagers - the most significant feature of the original plot - may have never happened. And that is sad. Twice wronged, twice denied, and twice forgotten. "I am Thoicha," the hapless soul keeps telling her long-lost lover. Perhaps, that should have been my epigraph.

The show must go on, though, as the clunky "To Be Continued" parting shot has confirmed. Would Ibohal's mind be swayed once he confronts his past love in flesh and bones?

Will Thoicha's return wreak havoc on his new life and settled future? Or will such questions be bypassed, and Thoicha be reduced to a malignant walking corpse, whose struggle with some maiba consumes half of the plot? Will it be a psychologically and emotionally engaging story, or one that invokes passive entertainment?

Because hope is eternal, I will continue to hope - hope for Thoicha, for a closer focus on the storyline and less dependence on gimmicks, for an idea of horror that recognises whom it is attempting to horrify.

* Natalidita Ningthoukhongjam wrote this review for Hueiyen Lanpao as part of weekly column "The Methodical magpie"
This article was webcasted on July 23, 2013.


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