Darkness Visible (2019)

Darkness Visible first published by

Neil Biswas’ Darkness Visible opens in London, as three unusual things happen on the 28th birthday of local artist Ronnie (Jaz Deol). First, during sex with his ‘rock chick’ girlfriend Lena (Salóme Gunnarsdóttir), he experiences a strange sensation of displacement. Second, the scar on his chest – a leftover from surgery when he was a baby – starts bleeding. Third, he is suddenly inspired to paint an elaborately grand and detailed mural of an exotic cityscape. After he shows his mother Sulekha (Avantika Akerkar) a photograph of the mural, she goes missing. A day later, Ronnie receives a call from his mother’s mobile. It is AJ (Neil Bhoopalam), a cousin whom Ronnie has never met, saying that Sulekha is in a Kolkata hospital, comatose after being hit by a car. 

“Mum said she never wanted to go back to India,” a confused Ronnie tells Lena, before heading over to the motherland to solve the mystery of Sulekha’s sudden return and of his own infancy. It will turn out that Sulekha has been lying to Ronnie about her (and his) past. He has spent his entire life thinking he was one person when in fact he was another – and so, with a conflicted heart, he tries to solve the riddle of his identity, even as first his mother, and then eventually others, are killed in mysterious circumstances that mirror events from roughly three decades earlier. Although the busy police show only limited interest in the case, Ronnie nonetheless finds himself – as an outsider with a link to all the victims – prime suspect in these murders. So he mounts his own investigation, sometimes helped by sympathetic police photographer Asha (Sayani Gupta), following a trail of irrational clues which also lead to revelations about his own history.

  There is a recurrent type of scene in Darkness Visible: Ronnie pursues – or in one case is pursed by – someone down a labyrinthine tangle of Kolkata avenues and passageways in which he becomes more and more lost. These scenes, as well as Ronnie’s linguistic isolation and his gradual inability to recognise his own reflection, serve to show a once confident, centred character caught in the freefall of disorientation, as he struggles to uncover his proper place in the doom-laden events unfolding around him. Though presented as genre cinema, with ritualised serial slayings, demonic mysticism, hallucinatory nightmare sequences and the impending threat of apocalypse, Ronnie’s quest for identity reflects experiences that will be familiar to anyone returning to roots that were once severed. So the film, directed by Biswas and co-written by Ben Hervey, concerns the sort of estrangement (and self-estrangement) that any exile or émigré will know: that sense of being equally a stranger in one’s adopted home and alienated from one’s origins, and of being two souls in one body. The deeper that Ronnie goes into the terra incognita of Kolkata’s backroads and slums, the closer he gets to discovering the true self concealed within and just waiting to find expression.

In all its horror, Ronnie’s journey is an Oedipal one. His unknown past is catching up with him and driving him towards an inevitable future written long ago – and the more he tries to avert his terrible, hidden destiny, the closer he gets to realising it. As such, Darkness Visible represents an unusual merger of Hindu esoterica and Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987), as cultures cross, identities blur and a diabolical fate long put on pause is finally replayed. 

Summary: Neil Biswas’ Indian émigré horror is both a mystical murder mystery and an Oedipal chronicle of deaths foretold.

© Anton Bitel