Vasantha Mullai (2023) Movie Review: The ennui of corporate life and its toll on an individual’s mental health is relevant in an increasingly capitalistic world that values work and results over its human subjects. In his feature-length directorial debut, director-writer Ramanan Purushothama teases a psychological thriller about the perils of overworking and negating your mental health. But soon into its premise, Vasantha Mullai (2023) turns into a muddled thriller that is as unsure as its protagonist about the kind of film it strives to be.
As the film opens, we follow Rudhran (Bobby Simha), a software engineer at an IT firm, currently completing an important project that would likely be a make-or-break in his career. With a deadline of just five months, Rudhran is determined yet anxious to turn the project in order to secure a promotion. To accentuate his mechanized and enervating lifestyle, Purushothama weaves Rudhran’s work schedule in a clever music montage sequence—Rudhran wakes up early with dark circles below his eyes, injects himself with caffeine, and gets to work. This alienates him from his girlfriend, Nila (Kashmira Pardeshi), who is vexed by Rudhran’s work fixation.
Despite giving it all—Rudhran’s project faces a last-minute bug that prevents it from reaching its deadline. Frustrated by the failure, Rudhran has a meltdown and finds himself in a hospital. The benign doctor asks him, “Do you work on the machine or work as the machine?” and prescribes him rest. Until this point in the film, Purushothama seems to be weaving a cautionary tale of how toxic work environments affect our mental health. But following this urban-centric corporate episode, the film shifts to the scenic landscape when Rudhran and Nila decide to take a road trip. While meant to alleviate our protagonist’s mental condition, this innocuous road trip further drains Rudhran—and the film itself!
During their trip, Rudhran and Nila are met with a minor accident—probably involving an animal. A scared Nila suggests that they take refuge for the night, and the two arrive at Vasantha Mullai—the titular hotel. The gothic architecture of the hotel, the raining storm outside, and the seemingly quiet premise signal that something is about to go off. And things do go awry—but more in silly than frightening ways. Rudhran and Nila soon encounter a sinister presence in the hotel and must fight to save their lives.
To go beyond this would entail heavy spoilers, but Purushothama interjects so many disparate elements from other genres that it makes his film frustratingly cluttered and clumsy. In the end, the film attempts to tie it all with the earlier events in the narrative, but this attempt at cohesion appears so lazy and insincere that not even its benign intentions can salvage it.
Vasantha Mullai (2023) clearly owes a lot to far-superior psychological thriller entries—most notably Christopher Smith’s Triangle (2009), along with traces of Fight Club (1999), The Machinist (2004), The Shining (1980), and even a teasing resemblance to George Sluizer’s riveting The Vanishing (1988). Elaborating on how the film derives from these features would be to enter spoiler territory. Still, those even remotely familiar with these aforementioned titles would get what I am hinting at.
But even when these instances inspire Purushothama, he channels his sparks into standard masala cinema with extended over-the-top fights (where a punch sends off an opponent in the air), machismo, and melodrama. Unlike Smith’s Triangle, which was brave enough to settle for a Sisyphean and nihilistic end, Purushothama takes the hackneyed way out to resolve his film. This is primarily because of his indecisiveness in what kind of film he ultimately seeks to make. A corporate cautionary tale? A backwoods slasher? A science fiction mind game? By the time the film ties its loose threads, it is too late for this tonal mishap.
Even though his screenplay needed more polishing, Purushothama’s work in the director’s chair is undoubtedly commendable. The cinematography by Gopi Amarnath is deft, whether it be its application in close-ups or the aerial shots to create a distinct sense of its frightening spaces. The film also excels in relying more on camerawork and its actor’s performances to highlight tension rather than jump scares—the extended takes on characters’ faces do more to scare than to focus on the grotesque object of their fright.
Talking of actors, Bobby Simha delivers a convincing turn as the work-obsessed Rudhran. His spiral into madness keeps the film afloat even when it enters head-scratching territory. Kashmira Pardeshi does her best to bring her one-dimensional character to life, but with an archaically gendered script, her Nila is only left to be a scared damsel-in-distress. Another important character, i.e., the titular hotel, is used just for the setting and has nothing thematic or metaphorical about itself that can justify its intriguing name.
In the film’s final shot, Purushothama hints at a ludicrous last-minute twist, hoping to incite Reddit-based discussions and theories about what exactly “that shot” meant. But it is highly unlikely that any viewer would care to invest their time in deciphering this ambiguous riddle of an already messy film.