Read Part 1 here
September 1, 2017
Malolan pored over the huge mound of paperwork that lay scattered on his bedroom floor. He usually had a strict ‘No carrying work home’ policy, but exceptions had to be made. Three days back, he’d been presented with a case that merited breaking all his policies.
Malolan’s rotund client, Sudhakar, had explained to him in detail the peculiar death of his assistant, Prabhu. Sudhakar had a film post-processing business that focused primarily on colour grading and removal of graphic glitches.
‘I have twenty five people working for me, all technical experts,’ Sudhakar had started the back story. ‘But, Prabhu was a genius. A veritable technology wizard. He specialized in restoration and digitization of old films from reels. In fact, the Tamil movie industry should feel indebted to Prabhu for his effort, without which many absolute classics would have been lost forever.’
Malolan made notes, in addition to recording the conversation in his Dictaphone. ‘How old was Mr. Prabhu? Give me a small background about his family as well.’
Sudhakar nodded, ‘I guess he was around twenty five, I need to check the employment records to be certain. He’s been with me for the past three years.’ He paused and looked pained, ‘Sometimes, it’s hard to think that he’s truly gone, detective. I’m not sure about his family. Prabhu used to say that he had ran away when he was fifteen. His friends might know a bit more, I think.’
‘Alright! What was he working on? What video did he watch? How did he die?’
Sudhakar sighed, ‘It was a useless project, detective. Just something to get some brownie points from the Government. The CBFC (Central Board of Film Certification) had called for an auction to restore and digitize abandoned films. You might ask what these abandoned films are. Well, do you know every year an average of eight hundred movies are made in India across all languages? Out of these hundred would be documentaries and the rest feature films.’
He stopped and accepted a glass of water from Kannappa, the old man who had been with Malolan’s family for more than five decades. Kannappa was a cook, caretaker, assistant and sounding board rolled in one. Sudhakar finished drinking and continued, ‘Of these seven hundred feature films, only four to five hundred see the light of the day in terms of theatrical release. Every year there are at least fifty films which get abandoned after they’ve been sent for certification. There might be many reasons – the film being utter worthless tops the list, but there are other reasons like creative disputes, lack of finance and the movie not passing muster according to Indian Censor Standards and in one utterly weird case the movie was abandoned because there were rumours that it had been cursed by a witch.’
Malolan chuckled and tapped his notepad with his Pilot pen, ‘So, your company won this auction to restore these films?’
His client nodded, ‘Yes! It’s just a vanity project. Complete this job and my company’s name would be at the forefront the next time CBFC wants to hire a post-production company for their projects. But there is one more reason why I desperately wanted this project. I love films and I believed that there were hidden gems lying among the discarded pile of movies. Do you know that Mayur Pednekar’s first ever movie was among the abandoned list?’
‘The successful Hollywood director?’
‘Yes! Imagine my surprise when I saw the moth eaten censor application file for his debut movie. All his movies are masterpieces. I don’t know why his debut feature was abandoned. Wouldn’t it be great if we could restore his debut work?’
‘Indeed! Your company would stand to land a financial windfall from it, along with the landslide of goodwill.’
Sudhakar shrugged, ‘So, I will make some money. Sue me!’
‘I’m not accusing you. Now please get back to Prabhu’s death.’
‘I was delighted when my company won the e-bid to restore the abandoned films. Naturally, I entrusted the project to Prabhu. He worked day and night for almost a month to just segregate those films which could actually be saved. Out of the six thousand odd films that came to us only three hundred could be salvaged. It was Prabhu who noted Pednekar’s film among the pile.’
Malolan just nodded and signalled Kannappa to get him some coffee. Sudhakar refused the offer for coffee and continued, ‘Prabhu had successfully restored and digitized about thirty films. He usually worked late into the night. I had no problems in leaving the keys with him, he was absolutely trustworthy. Last week, that is on the 25th, Prabhu messaged me saying he had found something amazing among the restored films. That was the last contact I had with him. The next day morning, the sweepers found Prabhu dead in the digi-lab with multiple scratch marks on his face and hands. He had gouged both his eyes out from their sockets with his own hands. His face was contorted in a horrific way.’
Sudhakar gulped and stopped. He was sweating profusely, ‘Detective, I paid the Police and my employees a lot of money to keep Prabhu’s death under wraps. The film industry is very superstitious. If they found out that a gruesome death had happened in my office, I can wave goodbye to my future business. That doesn’t mean I want to ignore such a gifted person’s death. I’m ready to commit serious money in finding out what happened that night. And I want you to handle the case.’
Malolan had spent another hour with Sudhakar, grilling him with pointed questions about various details he needed. Some, Sudhakar answered, others he called those who could give answers. Malolan took copious notes and it was those that he was going through now. Sudhakar had also sent across the documents pertaining to the abandoned films and DVDs of the films restored by Prabhu.
Going through the documents was drudgery. Malolan knew that he was searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack, but in his case he didn’t know if there was a needle. Prabhu, while being a skilled technician, had possessed zero organizational skills. His notes were scattered, he never assigned file numbers to the restored videos and to top it all his handwriting was completely illegible. Most of the documents from the CBFC archives were in state of serious decay. They’d been left to fend for themselves against termite attacks and dampness in the storage areas.
Malolan closed his notepad. He needed a break from thinking. He called out to Kannappa for a coffee. There was no reply. Malolan sighed and went in search of the old man. Kannappa was in the kitchen, cleaning the fridge.
‘Kannappa! I’ve been calling for you,’ Malolan raised his voice and the old man turned. Smiling apologetically, he plugged his hearing-aid into his ears and started preparing coffee.
August 31, 2017
Nikhil Taneja read and re-read the email message on his laptop screen. He clicked the link to download the video from the file hosting server and then used the login id and password to delete the file from the server. He was excited and a little bit apprehensive at the same time. As per the instruction, he deleted the email. He could understand why the sender was so secretive. What he possessed was a potential goldmine. His online video piracy website would get insane amount of traffic once word got out that Mayur Pednekar’s debut film would be available for viewing exclusively on his CineMafia.Com
Nikhil fixed himself a shot of whiskey and settled down. He was curious to watch Pednekar’s debut film. The man was a legend in Hollywood. His movies were hard-hitting and had won many awards. Pednekar himself had two shiny Academy Awards displayed in his office. Why would such a filmmaker’s abandon his debut film in the annals of obscurity? Nikhil shook his head and uploaded the video to his website server. The movie would go online in exactly seventy two hours. He shot an email to his partners about the viral-publicity campaign. He didn’t mention the name of the movie or the director in the email. He scheduled another mail that would automatically get delivered to their inboxes twenty four hours later. That mail contained the details of the movie.
Satisfied, he sat down and connected his laptop to the overhead projector and clicked the play icon. His friend Prabhu had done a masterful job in restoring the forty five year old movie. Nikhil chuckled at the film name – ‘Anthapura Azhagi – The Beauty of the Harem’
‘Looks like our Oscar winning director started his career in porn!’ He sipped the whiskey and turned the volume up on his Bang & Olufsen Surround Sound system.
Ten minutes into the movie, Nikhil started getting uncomfortable. There was a ritualistic human sacrifice scene being depicted on the screen. The actress who was playing the witch had magnetic screen presence.
Nikhil felt the urge to throw up. He was feeling paranoid, he thought. There were voices in his head ordering him to follow what they said. His head was pounding and suddenly he felt a sharp pain on his right hand. He looked down and saw that he had scratched his right hand with his left. There was a cackling laugh coming from somewhere in the room. Nikhil was terrified, his hands went automatically to his head and started tearing clumps of his own hair. The laugh escalated inside his head and he started desperately clawing his face to try to stop it. He fell down from his couch and curled into a foetal position.
Then he saw the grey shape looming in the corner of his room. The cackle increased and so did the pounding in his head. Nikhil tried to close his eyes but his hands moved on their own volition and started gouging at the sockets.
Blood started spraying from his eyes and ears, as his screams fought with the maniacal cackle to fill the room.
To be continued…