When you blend Vincent Vadakkan’s document with Fahad Faasil’s electricity in a 50,000-watt mixer with 10,000,000 RPM motor called Anwar Rasheed and add to it a handful of Gautham Menon, give it a generous shake of Dileesh Pothan and a shot of Chemban Vinod and Vinayakan each, and garnish it with a lavish amount of Nazriya – what you have is a delicious cocktail of genres, called Trance. Although from the critic’s standpoint, the taste of the cocktail fails to linger on into the last half, leaving a rather bland aftertaste, yet for a mediocre moviegoer, the strained pace is a delight. While the background score could have been better given the chic and overall swanky feel the movie gives, especially in the last half, Amal Neerad’s cinematography is definitely worth a mention and Resul Pookutty’s sound design is over the moon.
Trance – a movie that poses an important question – What came first?
A logic-deficient section of the society that is looking for magical remedies to their natural problems or the charlatan-community that has made a business out of the believers’ hope in that remedy?
Like all, “what came first’ questions, this too has no answer. While the movie, too, fails to answer this question, what it attempts to answer is the question of how authentic these miracles are.
One question that the film should have answered but chooses to remain silent about is who of the two is to be held responsible – the idiocy of the believer who in the opinion of the charlatan is lamb and sometimes donkey or the gluttony of giant corporations to turn human desperation for magical remedies into a business venture?
It takes courage to talk on this issue in our country today. One would wonder how the movie got through the censor board. The answer lies in one of the most crucial scenes in the movie: When the character of Viju, during his interview with the characters of Isaac and Solomon, asks, “Won’t it be a problem?” Isaac counter-questions, “Who would make a problem?” Solomon pitches in and says, “There are many in the government that protect our interest.”
Christian Corporatization and Vadakkan’s story challenges
Is this a hidden code of how this movie saw the light of the day? We will never know. If this is actually the real-time scenario then other filmmakers should take advantage of this situation and make more such movies that address all the aspects of Christian corporatization.
For many small and big organizations that fight the menace of proselytization in India, this film comes as a respite. Individuals and organizations that are otherwise weary of seeing the miracle mafia spread its fangs deeper and deeper into Indian societies, breathed a sigh of relief when someone dared to blow the whistle on them. Is this something the fighting community must delight in? Well, this is for those organisations to decide. In determining whether or not they should bask in such films, they need to know that the film is deeply rooted in the bible and has theological insinuations. Does it do any good to the fight against proselytization in our country? Well, let’s check it out: .
Vadakkan is a practicing Christian by his own admission. And from his script there is no doubt that he knows not only the bible very well but is also woke to the current practices of Christianity.
So, it seems like, when he set himself up for the task of writing a story, he did not have to look any further than the bible, and his faith itself, to come up with characterization for his characters and a theme on which to base his message. But in weaving plenty of biblical characters into the story, the problem that Vadakkan might have faced is that he had too few characters in the movie, into whom he had to read a whole array of biblical characters. As for the overarching theme of the movie, it undoubtedly hinges on the neo-conversion experience and the subsequent transformation of an individual into a Christian, his fall from glory owing to his transgressions.
How the story progresses
The story goes something like this: Viju Prasad is a self-motivated atheist who is struggling to realize his simple and realistic goals in the motivational speaking industry. With a family history of mental illness and suicidal tendencies, he struggles on a daily basis to keep his sanity alive. In addition to fighting his own fears he has his brother to fear for and fear about. His only goal in life is to see a packed auditorium applauding to his talk. He believes that it is not going to come without the painstaking process of taking the stairs. This is revealed in a sign at the entrance to his home – “There is no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs.” He is shown to be a compassionate person which is revealed in the painting of Mary Teresa on the wall by his study table and in the patience with which he handles his bipolar brother. Viju strives hard to achieve his goals.
Enter Solomon Davis and Isaac Thomas who head Tripac. A casting agent called Kavita calls Viju and informs him of the job opening with Tripac. Here, something interesting happens. Viju slips and falls in the bathroom during the call and struggles to rise to his feet. He somehow gets up and finally goes limping to meet the heads of Tripac. Solomon points to Viju that he is living an unsuccessful life and convince Viju that his approach can never get him the success that he much desires. They tell him that they see it in him to achieve far greater things in life. Viju learns that the heads did a thorough background check of not only Viju’s family but also his own mind and what he desires in life. They create in Viju a want that was not there in him, previously. Viju succumbs to their offer. He commits to undergo the transformation. At this point, Avarachan is brought in. Viju is put under the mentorship of Avarachan who oversees the transformation of the timid, broken, unsuccessful Viju Prasad into the successful, bold, strong Joshua Carlton (JC). Avarachan later becomes Viju’s supervisor, who keeps close tabs on Viju’s lifestyle as JC, reporting his performance to the Tripac heads from time to time.
Weaving in Christian symbolism
Let’s look at the Christian symbolism till here. Viju Prasad’s character is symbolic of a non-Christian who is ignorant of his own place and purpose in the grand scheme of things that god laid. Let’s examine piece by piece. Viju Prasad’s atheism, the ignorance of his own wants, his insecurities, his paltry desire to see himself talking to a packed auditorium are all symbolic of the lowly life and desires of a non-Christian before he finds Jesus or better still, Jesus finds him. The casting agent Kavita is symbolic of lay evangelists, who are constantly on the lookout for vulnerable people, who in the Christian worldview are lost, and unsaved souls who need the salvation of JC (Jesus Christ). Their job is to cast a net on such people and bring them to the Christian god/s. Note that Kavita does not try to “evangelize” Viju when she meets him the first time. She thinks he is a successful professional. And successful people are not susceptible to being “cast.”
The fall in the bathroom, at first seems like an insignificant event in the movie. But when looked at closely, a deep theological concept is uncovered. In every conversion story, the convert hears a voice. It is the “call” from Jesus. And every single time, this call comes at a time when the believer is at a mental and physical rock bottom state in his life. Viju is literally at the ground level when he is in the “call” from god’s (Tripac’s) agent. Viju’s limping to the interview with a confidence indicating his belief in himself and trust in a positive outcome are all symbolic of a broken person going to the Christian god in unfailing faith believing that he will be taken in by god.
Tripac is symbolic of Christianity itself – through which the Christian god laid out the grand scheme of things. The three men at the top are the trinity of Christianity – Solomon as Yahova, Isaac as his ever-obedient righthand person that the bible calls the “Word” as in Yahova’s word that is carried out in flesh, that is Jesus Christ. Avarachan is the overseer of this scheme, which is the holy spirit.
At the most unexpected of times, as if by a miracle, through a “call”, a lost, unsaved Viju is connected with the Christian god. And now he is sitting in god’s presence. God shows to Viju his lowly state of being. He shows that Viju is an unsuccessful individual who is reveling in a false notion of happiness, that his goals are trivial compared to those that are in store for him. God further discredits Viju’s perseverance and self-motivated hard work and calls out on the inconsequentiality of his compassion and diligence. God tells him, “I have been watching you even though you never believed in my existence. I know everything about you.” God offers Viju far greater things if he left his present lowly life behind and followed Christianity’s god. God enlightens him by telling him that the only goal of man’s life should be to become a follower of Jesus and “all these things shall be added unto you.”
The most significant part of this scene, which sums up the Christian message is when Solomon injects the idea that “one should be driven by want”. Solomon points out the triviality of Viju’s want. With this he floats the idea of the importance of being driven by want. He next, implies that the fulfilment of that want lies only in Tripac’s offer to “convert” into a miracle worker. This is symbolic of the larger Christian message: Christianity offers itself as the only remedy to the problem that Christianity created in the first place. This job as a miracle worker is the only means to fulfil Viju’s want that Solomon just created, for Viju to save himself from his lowly life that he was just revealed to have been leading. Viju falls for it. He embraces the offer. He submits himself to the Christian god.
Let me sum it up: conversion into Christianity is the ticket that is sold by Christianity to go to the Christian notion of heaven to be saved from the Christian notion of sin that Christianity created.
Continuing on the Christian spin, Viju is introduced to the holy spirit, who is the guide and mentor in the transformative process of the lowly, timid, unsuccessful Viju into a bold, confident, and successful Joshua Carlton. It is the holy spirit’s function to ensure that Viju rises to the standards of deserving of the offer of salvation that god has given to Viju. Unless the holy spirit approves of Viju, he will never be admitted into Christianity. As they say, the test of fire makes fine steel, the holy spirit meticulously works on Viju, admonishing him when he sees the need to. After a long refining process Viju gets initiated into Christianity. He is baptised. It is also the function of the holy spirit to guide and teach first and when the believer is initiated, or baptised into the faith, the holy spirit moves to an intercessory function. On the larger scale he may be perceived of as the overseer of the large scheme of things of the Christian world. The holy spirit never ceases to watch over Joshua Carlton.
Coming back to the movie, Joshua Carlton has grown into an international figure who generates international partnerships for the company. His lifestyle, his attire and his demeanour change. In addition to all that he adopts he is introduced to psychosomatic pills, by Solomon and team. He begins to see himself as an equal to Solomon and Isaac and the duo resent it. He supersedes Avarachan, his own guide and mentor in matters relating to his activity over which Avarachan previously had authority. Little by little, Joshua turns into a narcissistic individual.
The expose’ of the evangelist
Enter Mathew Varghese, the non-believing TV host, to whom Joshua gives his first public interview. During the interview Joshua narrates a fake testimony of how he became a Christian. When Mathew attempts to expose him for amassing wealth indicating that he earned it in fraudulent ways, Joshua spins it around in his favour by recounting the charitable works he does. Varghese is drugged during the break in the show. Just at the time when Varghese challenges Joshua to create a live miracle on the show, the drug kicks in. Taking advantage of this, Joshua challenges Mathews to stand up which Varghese does and collapses. Joshua then pretends to pray and says a biblical verse that forbids testing god. Later Joshua is exposed by the media for drugging Mathew.
Solomon and Isaac are furious about this. During the confrontation, Solomon and Isaac reveal their true colours, that of authoritativeness. Their money power shows in the way they expect Joshua to obey them. Solomon quotes from the Bible: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear.” But Joshua stands up for himself against Solomon’s authority. Isaac hits him to the ground. Solomon then beats him with a golf club, to a coma. Joshua is hospitalised. At the 48th hour, the doctor, who is hand in glove with Solomon and team, informs that the situation looks grim and that he is almost “finished.” Meanwhile Tripac is on to it’s next miracle worker. On the third day, the Tripac team decides to dispose of Joshua and turn him into Saint Joshua for the public. Joshua comes out of his coma just before he is about to be taken for disposal. Joshua comes out of his coma as a maniac. He confronts the trio and tells them that he is going to call the shots henceforth. Joshua’s behaviour confuses the trinity of Tripac. That is when they decide to bring in Esther Lopez. They assign her the task of finding out if Joshua is indeed mentally sick or he is just acting.
In his post-resurrection form Joshua becomes even more maniacal, even more reachable and relatable to his followers. One such followers is Thomas, the poor farmer whose daughter, Hannah is sick with a deadly fever. Thomas refuses to see the doctor and continues to believe in the healing power of JC. Hannah eventually dies. At this point, Joshua has a change of heart and seeks to expose Tripac to the public. He takes Mathew into confidence and gives him a pen drive loaded with his recorded testimony. Mathew tries to sell the evidence to Tripac for 5 crores. On his way to meet Solomon and Isaac to get the money, Mathew gets run over by a truck. His head is smashed. Just before he dies, Mathew tells his staff to run the testimony on primetime news of his channel. In his confession Joshua tells that several mentally sick people are trapped in the hands of such corporations as Tripac. The result of Joshua’s confession is the death of Solomon and Isaac by Thomas’s sickle and the death of Avarachan by a stroke. Joshua goes for trial and confesses he is Viju Prasad. Before the trial ends, he is declared mentally unfit to stand trial. He is sent to mental care for the next two years. After release from the hospital he reads all the letters that Esther has written to him the last two years. He reads that she is in Amsterdam and he goes to find her. The movie ends with Esther shattering the glass to reach Viju.
As for the Christian symbolism in this part, soon after the conversion of Viju into Joshua, the movie introduces its next important Christian theme – the believer’s rise to fame and riches and his consequential fall due to his transgressions against god.
Along with the introduction of new overlapping themes, Vadakkan also assigns new biblical characteristics to the movie characters in addition to the characteristics that he already started with. The result is Solomon’s symbolism of Yahova now overlaps with the characteristics of King Solomon from the bible. King Solomon is known for his ungodly and arrogant ways. Similarly, after the resurrection from a 3-day coma, Joshua who was a representation of a neo-convert only until now, takes on the symbolism of Jesus Christ, himself, from this point on.
Joshua, the once lowly Viju Prasad, who was rescued by God from his atheism and purposeless life and put on the path to salvation, forgets god’s mercy and transgresses against him. He starts believing that he achieved all the fame and prosperity by his own strength. He first obstructs the holy spirit from discharging his functions and next he transgresses against god, telling his he doesn’t fear him. God pushes Joshua from his glory. And into the tomb of coma for three days. At this point, the alleged resurrection of Jesus is pushed through the plot in a subtle way. Starting with the verbiage – the 24th hour, 48th hour and the phrase ‘the third day’ just like the bible uses for the passing of time from the alleged crucifixion to resurrection – all the way to the events surrounding the recovery of Joshua from coma are symbolic of the biblical description of the alleged resurrection of Jesus. The symbolism doesn’t end there.
According to the biblical story, three women go to the tomb of Jesus to check on this and anoint him, on the third day. The movie shows three men going to get Joshua’s body. The biblical story also says there was an earthquake at the time of the resurrection event. Symbolically, just as Joshua opens his eyes, the light above his head flickers, and things in the room are shown to falling to the ground and breaking, just like they do during an earthquake. There is no other reason why the light should flicker if not to symbolize the resurrection event. This is just like the lightning and thunder that occurs when Joshua tries to perform a fake miracle on Mathew.
What was being carried out as a tightly-woven storyline until Joshua’s out-of-coma scene suddenly gets torn into multiple strands, all thrown in various directions, that begin to operate independently of each other.
Open-ended unanswered questions
In addition to introducing new themes, the story also opens new problems and fails to give meaningful closures to any of them. For example, the problem of Esther’s backstory is opened but it had not been developed to the fullest except other than being told in two parts of a song. The topic of her child has been opened, too, but never finds development. Thomas’ entry into Solomon’s and Isaac’s den which should have been guarded by security personnel, has no explanation. Given Solomon and Isaac’s monstrosity, they should have got Esther killed. But they let her go and there is no explanation for it. These are some of the plotholes in the second half that drop the movie to the category of an average entertainer.
There are a couple of scenes that question the intention of the moviemakers. First is the scene where Solomon quotes from Ephesians 6:5. The complete verse reads: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear and sincerity of heart, just as you would show to Christ.” This verse literally compares earthly masters to Christ.
In reply, Joshua says that he fears no one. Not even the earthly masters. This is a very controversial verse from the bible as it endorses slavery and justifies it. On the basis of this verse, white people have enslaved people of color for centuries. The real question is, why did Vadakkan put the slave verse from the bible in the script? What was he trying to expose here, in addition to the Christian fraud? The second scene that needs special mention is where Viju Prasad, who quits being Joshua Carlton warns in his public confession that several mentally sick people like him are trapped by organizations like Tripac and utilized to further their agenda of amassing wealth, by selling them fake miracles.
Tripac being symbolic of Christianity itself, can this be then read as Christianity traps mentally weak and vulnerable people to further its agenda in the world?
(Please also read: Evangelicals: Colonization by American Churches, Imperialism by Narratives)
What is the message that the movie is trying to give?
Message of the movie – Evangelism drama and Choices?
The climax leaves the viewer wondering whether the movie is urging people to stay from the miracle traps or urging them to stay away from converting into Christianity itself.
Here is what I mean: the conversion of Viju into Joshua happened at a time when Viju was the most vulnerable. He has a change of heart, and realizes his mistake and gets out of it. He goes through a healing process for two years. He emerges totally sane and sober, to the point that he finds all that he lost, including the love of his life that he couldn’t see before, in his intoxicated conversion state. It almost seems like the moviemakers are calling the Christian state a delusional, unreal state of being. Only when one quits it, one comes back to a normal state.
Whatever the message the movie intends to give, one message is clearly sent across: If religion is the opium of the people, as Karl Marx said, then even the administers of the drug are not spared of its intoxication. In fact, it’s the masters that need its intoxication more than the masses. Without drugs, man cannot reach a maniacal state. And unless religion is delivered in a maniacal state it cannot achieve desired results from the donkeys and lambs of religion.
Esther Johnson Dhanraj
Esther Johnson Dhanraj is a Biblical scholar and now an ex-Christian. She is a historian and a naturalist