As I am sitting down to write this review for the Indian set, Tamil starring short film Phantasmagoria (aka Nigazh Maayai), I find myself quite frustrated. This feeling is not due to the plot, which involves hopeful screenwriter and director Vignesh Shanmugam. He plays a version of himself, as he prepares for his upcoming meeting with a producer at JD Production House. The night after he finds out about this big opportunity, Vignesh begins to have dreams that feel so real that once he wakes up, he believes it happened. His best friend Manoj (also a version of himself) convinces Vignesh otherwise, and that seems to work for a brief time. However, as time ticks away ever closer toward the meeting, dreams and reality blur more and more for the wannabe filmmaker. Is he going mad? Is Manoj setting Vignesh up for failure out of spite for his own ruined filmmaking dreams?
Nor do my objections stem from the acting, which, with one exception, is quite good. Shanmugam is putting a lot of energy and passion into his performance. One of his first deja vu moments, in which he hitches a ride to the bus stop while feeling uneasy about this being reality, is really well handled. An emotional speech he gives about his friend potentially sabotaging the script is delivered with gravitas and weight.
“Is Manoj setting Vignesh up for failure out of spite for his own ruined filmmaking dreams?”
Sadly, Manoj is very low energy. He looks boring in every scene and halfway mumbles a handful of his lines. If Shanmugam and Manoj are meant to contrast each other, that is a good idea in theory. One’s head is clouded and confused, the other firmly on the ground. Playing them as exact opposites should work. But Manoj goes too far the other direction and is merely a talking wooden plank. But even that does not cause my irritation at this film; especially considering that the supporting roles are well performed.
Of course, my grievances aren’t over the directing style, as Phantasmagoria is sleek as hell. MJ Arun Babu directs with pizzazz and energy. The director of photography, Ameen, uses the camera to pan continually, zoom spin, fade, dolly, and track Vignesh, so even the viewer is questioning what is real. Every moment of the 14-minute runtime has a nifty flourish or crazy camera move to showcase the protagonist’s state of mind visually. It is bold and exciting, and almost- almost- makes up for the big flaw of the film.
See, as much genuine talent and impressive skills are on display Phantasmagoria suffers from what I call Prisoner Of Second Avenue-syndrome. In that Neil Simon penned film, Jack Lemon has a mental breakdown within the first 60 seconds of the movie. The audience does not know this person and does not care about his deterioration since, for all they know, he is a jerk and had it coming. This exact same issue is present throughout this movie. The characters are paper-thin, with nothing beyond superficial elements to each speaking role. The main character may be going off his rocker, but the audience is not given a reason to care. Beyond his filmmaking aspirations and possibly a good for nothing slacker (there are questions about whether he ever actually wrote a script) there is nothing to Vignesh. As such, the audience does not care what happens to him.
“Every moment…has a nifty flourish or crazy camera move to showcase the protagonist’s state of mind…”
And somehow, he is the most well defined and sophisticated person in the movie. His friend’s possible betrayal is a manifestation of the blurring between his dreams and reality. This means that Manoj’s only thing, aside from being Vignesh’s friend, is by design not actually part of his persona. But at least there is something to talk about there.
The producer does not even get enough screentime to be gruff, friendly, super talkative, or stoic. Given that this character literally sets off the plot, that is a bit of an oversight. Nizam plays the person who ferries the lead across the highway multiple times. That is this person’s sole attribute.
Phantasmagoria is fantastically directed in a bold, hyper-stylized way. The lead performance is energetic and sells the mind-bending plot well. Sadly, the audience won’t care as all the characters are one-dimensional. Thus, I am frustrated as I cannot recommend the movie because it has no stakes. But there is so much technical bravado showcased, that I cannot not recommend.
Phantasmagoria (2019) Directed by MJ Arun Babu. Written by MJ Arun Babu. Starring Vignesh Shanmugam, Manoj, Nizam.
5 out of 10 Screenplays