Standing up as the end credits for Game Over rolled, I recognised that I had a rather visceral reaction to the genre-bending film featuring Taapsee Pannu and Vinodhini — even as my heart was still pounding from the truly scary, triggering moments toward the end, my lips were involuntarily breaking into a content smile. In retrospect, my entire experience of the film was primal — the film scared the living daylights out of me, strictly keeping me in audience mode instead of my oft-used critic mode. It was only after the lights came back on — I also fear darkness a little — that I could truly enjoy the experience that was Game Over.
Pannu plays Swapna, a gamer suffering from PTSD, after what seems to be a sexual assault from a year ago. Her performance in this bilingual film is one of the best we’ve seen this year (and I’m not just including women actors here).
Vinodhini, as her house help Kalamma, is just right for her role, not overbearing, but never taking bullshit either. In her introduction scene, she tastes Swapna’s breakfast from her plate and says, ”enna konjam uppilla″ (no big deal, there isn’t enough salt is all). When Swapna retorts, ”uppe illa″ (there is absolutely no salt), Kalamma just brings her a saltshaker and goes about her business. To think of Kalamma merely as the house help would be to undermine this hard-to-define, yet intimate relationship between the two. This relationship has no name, but it’s strong enough to bear the weight of the entire film, which is what it fantastically does.
Swapna’s house, where she spends most of her time, and where most of the film’s action takes place, is the definition of a ‘lived-in’ mise en scene. Swapna always sleeps with her light on; she holds on to her joystick like her life depends on it; she always sleeps on the sofa; and insists on the comforts of familiarity — “leave things as they are,” she says more than once in the film. Yet, even in her own home, in her own body and mind, Swapna feels unsafe. Game Over is the story of how she finds her safety.
In tracing that journey, over a few weeks, Game Over treats Swapna with such empathy and understanding that I may have even cried a little. There’s a scene where Kalamma asks Swapna to let go of the pain, now that her assaulter is in prison. But both Swapna and the film reject that idea—instead, the focus stays on Swapna, and what her experience did to her.
Regret, victim blaming, self-loathing, isolation: ’Game Over’ subtly presents every emotion someone in Swapna’s state might experience but without patronising or infantilising her. In this film, her lived experience is the most important story. So much so that for much of the film, the villain is only heard in the form of loud impatient breaths. Even when we see the villain right at the end, their motives stay irrelevant. This movie is not about them.
And Swapna’s trauma isn’t turned into a sorrow-fest either. She actively tries to take care of herself, makes her own doctor’s appointments, goes in search of answers and even tries her best not to disturb Kalamma. In fact, there is a scene with a knife that I can’t discuss without revealing some spoilers, but watch out for it, watch the way the film treats it, devoid of any melodrama, without taking away the seriousness of it.
In writing Game Over, Ashwin Saravanan and Kaavya Ramkumar show us the immeasurable advantages of staying focussed. The entire film has only a handful of characters. When the backstory of a brutally murdered woman appears, we are told a succinct story, narrated over a montage—no meet-cute, love story and other unnecessary scenes to establish her personhood. No revenge either, for a change. Every conversation is measured and to-the-point. So, when there is a name card to tell us who one of the characters is, while no one else got that treatment, we are able to look past it.
To call Game Over a slasher film or even a thriller takes away from the genre-bending endeavour it is. There is a ghost-story element — but in retrospect I wonder if it was only in my mind. It’s not so much horror, unless you are thinking about the horror of a woman’s everyday life. There is a bit of fantasy in there, but I would argue that the sisterhood that the fantasy angle comes to represent is, in fact, no fantasy at all. And the biggest triumph is that through all of this, Game Over remains a coherent, focused and satisfying tale of slaying demons both inside and out.