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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Mercury, Review: The evil that corporates do kills after them*

Mercury, Review: The evil that corporates do kills after them*

No, not the planet, but the element. Like lead, mercury poisoning can cause permanent damage to the human body. The movie, Mercury, begins when the damage is long done and the factory that caused it is shut and abandoned. However, the after-effects are about to wreak havoc on five deaf-mute friends, and one blind man will extort vengeance of the most brutal kind. Made without dialogue, Mercury has a soundtrack that ranges from cacophony to pulsating background score and ends with inevitable results. It’s a landmark of sorts, what with Prabhu Deva playing the nemesis for the first time, and worth a watch.

Five friends in their twenties are on a reunion weekend in a farm-house in tea country, South India. The four boys (Deepak Paramesh, Anish Padmanabhan, Sananth Reddy, Shashank Purushotham) and one girl (Indhuja) are alumni of a special school for the hearing impaired. All of them are deaf-mute due to a mercury poisoning incident many years ago, and communicate using sign language. After the party, they are driving around drunk. It is the anniversary of the closure of a company called Corporate Earth Pvt. Ltd., which had caused the leak. They go to the deserted factory gate and pelt stones, expressing they hatred for the evil caused by the company.

Suddenly, a freak accident derails their merriment. They kill a man (Prabhu Deva) and try to dispose of his corpse, but when they are on their way back, one of them discovers his phone is missing. Bent on retrieving it, he and his friends retrace their journey and look everywhere. They find it next to the spot where they had buried the corpse, but the hole is open and the corpse has disappeared. Terrified at being discovered if the evidence is found, they look around for the body. Their search takes them back to the factory, where they do find the accident victim, propped against the walls of a cupboard. Astounded at the discovery, they turn around, only to see....

In March 2001, former workers and residents exposed a massive dump of Angli-Dutch corporate giant Unilever’s mercury containing wastes in a scrap-yard in Moonjikal, a crowded part of Kodaikanal town. The company was also found to have dumped mercury wastes in the forests behind its factory. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board shut down the plant due to these violations. But even today, several thousand tons of mercury-contaminated wastes and soils are lying inside and around the factory, leaking their deadly poisons into the surrounding environment.

Chronic exposure to mercury in air and water can have the severe health effects. Inhaled mercury vapour is partly deposited in the brain, heart and kidneys, and can also cross the placental barrier to affect the unborn foetus among women. Some of the known health effects include.

Gum and dental problems, mood swings and nervous disorders

Skin allergies, persistent and itchy rashes.

Birth defects in children born to exposed mothers – Mild to severe tremors

Memory loss, behavioural changes, loss of hearing

Kidney, heart and brain damage

Screenplay writer and director Karthik Subbaraj (Pizza, Jigarthanda, Iraivi) says his Mercury is inspired by real-life incidents. “The germ of the idea for Mercury came from the 2001 poisoning case, where hundreds of workers were allegedly exposed to toxic mercury vapours at the Hindustan Lever factory in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu. The plant has since been shutdown.”

Most on the action takes place in the abandoned factory, which is a set designer’s (Satees Kumar) delight: boilers, cylinders, chains, containers, engines, drums, lofts, name it, they have it. You must give it to Karthik that he uses the entire factory, with minute attention. In the midst of the mayhem, he also manages to weave in a fleeting, delicate love story. Although Mercury has no dialogue, all the actors gesticulate animatedly and keep making grunting noises. There is also a loud background score to boot. Add to that mobile phones and a watch that ring loud and often, sometimes leading to deadly consequences. The characters use the video function to communicate. It’s a packed sound-track.

Confronted with an entity on the rampage, our dive deaf-mutes keep trying to sneak away, only to capitulate when cornered. In between, we have doses of horror and gore, with the supernatural making its long-delayed entry at the fad end. Two major links are missing, although Karthik does provide an animated, sign language explanation for part of the mysterious proceedings, in flash-back.

Silent Movie-1976 comes to mind as the first silent movie after the advent of the talkies. Ten years later, Pushpak arrived, a comedy like its predecessor, which Subbaraj watched several times, as he did Charlie Chaplin’s early, silent work. Karthik has not drawn direct inspiration from either, except for the idea of making a silent film. He might have been inspired in the horror genre by The Shuttered Room (Prabhu Deva’s character modelled after Oliver Reed?), and most definitely by A Quiet Place. Once the group encounters the zombie, the narrative proceeds along predictable lines, with only the details in the hunter-prey confrontations differing.

As they embarked upon the car ride, I wondered whether I had walked into a theatre that was showing S*** Durga. Greysish green is the main colour, an attempt to equate is with decay and destruction all the way, whether it is the factory or the forest landscape. Cinematographer S. Tirru has done a very good job, with almost the entire film shot at night (or day for night). On at least three occasions, his camera does a 90°, 145° and 180 ° tilt from top angles, to add the effect of divine fatality. But in the process, some of the shots are not visible at all. Sound design by Kunal Rajan and background score by Santosh Narayanan compensate for the screams and shrieks. As the tagline of the film goes, “Silence is the most powerful scream.” Dare I say the line is influenced by the Alien, original version, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Vivek Harshan’s editing of the 108 min exercise keeps the suspense going, with several shots having shock value.

All the characters live their parts, whether it is the over-the-top deaf-mutes or their predator, Prabhu Deva. Deva’s expressions and get up strike terror even when he does not speak. For the actor-choreographer-director to accept and then pull-off such a negative part was a challenge, and he emerges victorious. It does not come as a surprise then that Subbaraj wrote the script with Deva in mind. Many of the chases and attacks are like dances, and quite naturally, director Karthik “ an acting trainer on board and each and every scene was choreographed and rehearsed extensively for nearly a month.” It shows. Good support comes from Sananth Reddy, Deepak Paramesh, Shashank Purushotham, Anish Padmanabhan, Indhuja, Gajaraj and Remya Nambeeshanam, in an extended cameo, towards the end.

There is novelty in Mercury. You may not be satisfied with the denouement but you will have spent some edge of the seat moments. Dumping of toxic waste by trillion dollar corporates may not be the overlying theme of the film, yet in its own, macabre, terrorising way, it underscores the need to respect our ecology.

Rating: ***


*With apologies to William Shakespeare

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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