The “first silent thriller in Indian cinema” is filled with sound. In Karthik Subbaraj’s horror-themed Mercury, there are background noises and an insistent score by Santosh Narayanan that is present in every other scene, and at least some of the characters are seen moving their mouths. We would hear them if we were allowed to, but Subbaraj, the director of the Tamil hits Pizza and Jigarthanda, is determined to carry off his story without dialogue. He takes the easy way out – his leads are a group of hearing- and speech-impaired youngsters who communicate through sign language and are unable to hear what the viewers can.
The movie opens in a bungalow in a hill station where the youngsters (Sananth, Indhuja, Deepak Paramesh, Shashank Purushottam, Anish Padmanbhan) have convened for a reunion. A night-time drive turns tragic when they run over a man (Prabhudeva). They conceal the body but, of course, make a hash of it. The action shifts to a mercury plant where a leak had taken place decades ago, causing many deaths and irreparable damage to the region.
Subbaraj tries to dress up a routine horror film with a social theme. The connection drawn between the lack of vital human faculties and the poisoning incident ultimately proves to be as feeble as Prabhudeva’s attempts to portray a malevolent spirit who stalks the hapless friends for no fault of their own.
Although the movie is stripped of dialogue, it doesn’t exploit the possibilities that enter when speech exits the picture. Mercury is dedicated to silent cinema, including Singeetam Srinivasa Rao’s Pushpak (1987), but it misses some of the tricks of removing conversation from the talkies. Pushpak had background music (by the great L Vaidyanathan) and background sounds, but it retained its links to silent cinema through the use of mime, sight gags and moments that soared without the crutch of speech. In the recently released A Quiet Place, in which humans have been forced to give up speech to save themselves from monsters that hunt by following sounds, silence becomes a powerful tool of survival.
In Mercury, the lack of speech functions purely on the level of a gimmick. Fortunately, the director has enough tricks up his sleeve to make the scary portions work. The best bits are in the factory, where the friends run for their lives from the spirit. The actors who play the targets of attack are very effective in conveying their helplessness, and even though Subbaraj never lets them graduate from victims to survivors, they emerge as the silent heroes of a rather noisy thriller.