That the idiot box forces us to bear witness to some scary goings-on is a given. More often than not the daily news offers more chills and thrills than any entertainment cooked up by the various channels attempting to force us to sit still long enough to keep advertisers happy. So it was only a matter of time before a desi film came along that cast the television set as an important character in a motion picture.
In 13B, South star Madhavan plays Manohar, the middle son in a daily soap-ready family that consists of his mother (Poonam Dhillon), an older brother (who is married with two kids), his own wife (Neetu Chandra) and a younger sister. The brothers have recently moved their family into a new apartment on the thirteenth floor of a Mumbai high rise and the early scenes of the film show the family enjoying their new abode while indulging in the usual kidding around that characterises small screen family bonhomie before calamity strikes.
The first clue that something isn't quite right is provided by the building's elevator. It refuses to budge when Manohar attempts to ride in it alone. The second clue is provided by the seeing-eye dog owned by Manohar's blind neighbour when it goes crazy at the very idea of stepping into Manohar's home. The third hint that things aren't the way they appear to be turns up in the form of a television show that plays everyday at one in the afternoon (which would make it 1300 hours). The show unfolds the lives of a family, similar to Manohar's own (especially in composition) and to his growing horror he begins to realise that events in the television show closely mirror those in his own life.
When his wife meets with an inexplicable accident, Manohar enlists the help of a friend who is a police officer (Murali Sharma) and together they attempt to get to the bottom of the whole situation.
The performances are uniformly hammy and some of the writing is truly laughable. There is a sexual metaphor gag between Manohar and his wife that should have been a throwaway pun but is stretched to such an extent that it serves only to illustrate exactly how much the director was in love with his own sense of humour. The scene is uncomfortable to watch because of how blatantly unfunny it is.
Distractions abound throughout the film, like cliche dialogue, unnervingly fast speech, repetitive scenes that simply postpone the narrative's (and the audience's) arrival at the real point of the film. And yet, 13B is one of those rare movies where the second half offers a decent payoff to anyone patient enough to stick with the film beyond intermission.
In many cases, first time (as well as seasoned) directors have been able to deliver an engaging first half, only to squander any audience confidence they had gained in the race towards the climax. Director Vikram K. Kumar manages quite the opposite.
The second half offers up a complicated but satisfactory explanation for the events that transpired before intermission. Enough happens post intermission to actually make the pain of having sat through the amateur hour histrionics of the earlier material seem worthwhile.
From the sound design to the performances to some of the camerawork, 13B plays like bad late night television or graduate school theatre. Still, the conclusion of the film and the way the premise of the spooky television show is woven into the fabric of the main story makes it all work out. One simply wishes it didn't have to be such hard work getting to the point, for the filmmakers as well as the audience.