Sivapuranam (The Strange Case of Shiva) opens with a film projector, its light steadily intensifying until it becomes blindingly bright and a cut rescues us from vision impairment. It is a significant opening shot that establishes a central recurring object and, through the shaft of projected light emanating from the aperture, mirrors a key theme permeating the rest of the film: the gaze (the ‘ejaculatory force of the eye’, as Bresson called it), and the way it invades shared and personal spaces by way of fulfilling repressed desires and shaping reality.
Sivapuranam is a wordless character-study that follows the subliminal trenches of one man Shiva, as he becomes fixated upon the blurry photo of a woman taken purely by chance. He gradually develops an unhealthy obsession as he tinkers around with the photo while playing and replaying other footage he has captured, the projector becoming one of the multiple unwitting enablers of his newfound vice. Shiva leads a life of solitude (we do not see any friend-figure until the very end of the film), on the periphery of which roams a number of felines and canines that he feeds every now and then. And the closest he can come to any form of physical intimacy with another being is the red ant trampling around his bare chest while he sleeps.
Writer-director Aun Karthick deftly uses repetition of framing and anachronistic editing of shots to give us Shiva’s subjective experience of reality, marked by his distorted temporal sense that results from a life of monotony and isolation. This is heightened by the numerous extreme close-ups that parallel Shiva’s daily act of blowing up each pixel of the woman’s photograph. However, as viewers, we also enjoy the privilege of scrutinizing Shiva’s actions by maintaining an objective distance, the editing careful enough to strike a balance between the two modes of vision. The constant sense of voyeuristic dread keeps on building, even though it won’t come to a head until almost an hour into Sivapuranam, lending every subsequent shot an added edge of unpredictability.
A lot of the ambience of Sivapuranam is owed to the various, mysteriously-sourced, harsh and discordant sounds that surround Shiva’s existence. Karthick brilliantly incorporates composite frames and uses space to indicate a haunting ‘presence’ within Shiva’s messy shack, like the one particular shot of his kitchen alongside the projected image of the woman, appearing from the adjacent room like a phantom that stalks him. And while the entire film is composed of deliberately-held camera moves and tracking shots, the pattern is also broken on two notable occasions: one being Shiva running around a forest with his camera, and the other a long take of him and an acquaintance sitting down to drink while the camera curiously (and almost uncharacteristically) whip pans between their faces.
Karthick also painstakingly establishes the material reality surrounding his protagonist, via a marked presence of heightened sounds and noises emanating from objects, animals, distant humans and natural elements. His thematic focus on the sight, direct or indirect, finds its match through a formal emphasis of using sound design as the fundamental narrative tool. Boundaries real and imagined obscure Shiva’s (and our) vision and thwarts his constant impulse to ‘see’, while information comes pouring in via the sound track to encourage a shift in perception. In a brilliant and brief sequence, the arrival of a neighbour is recreated purely through the faint tinkling of ankle bells and shadows, the face being withheld from both protagonist and audience until much later.
Sivapuranam tells of a primal desire for psychological connection, one that Shiva’s lifestyle denies him and which he perversely seeks to replace, with cameras and projectors that would enable him to extend his gaze, finding only frustration for the most part.