Cast: Fahadh Faasil, Sai Pallavi, Atul Kulkarni, Lena, Renji Panicker
Athiran is a film that really only begins once you’ve left the theatre. The exercise of unspooling its knotted thread-like structure was something I enjoyed perhaps even more than the experience of sitting through the film. Set in a Tim Burtonesque Victorian mansion that has come to become a mental asylum for all of five patients, Athiran is quick and efficient at its world building. A swooping drone shot, much like the beginning of Kubrick’s The Shining, and we see how isolated the place is, like an island amidst a sea of trees. You can’t check out anytime you like, and it’s also a place you can never leave. Gothic glasshouses, moody fountains and long-winding hallways, the asylum is as creepy as its disorienting. Some doors remain closed, some doors open but they never lead you to the place you want to go to. We spend a day looking around through the eyes of Dr.Kannan Nair (Fahadh Faasil), there on official duty, yet the place remains discomforting as we struggle to paint a mental map of it.
We’re introduced to its inmates, each more perplexing than the last; a painter who can predict events, a heartbroken lover boy, a nun spouting Biblical verses. Yet it’s the sixth inmate, one that does not find a mention in the books, that Nair finds most fascinating. She is Nithya (Sai Pallavi), who knocks Nair out the moment he enters her dingy cell. Dressed in white with her hair covering all of her face, she doesn’t speak a word, yet her cries remain the loudest. The asylum needed to be investigated for Dr. Benjamin (Atul Kulkarni), its owner’s strange treatment methods. A believer of hypnosis to erase memory, Benjamin thinks of Nithya as his daughter or more suitably, his most prized medical experiment. Nair doesn’t find a friend, nor does he find assistance. Renuka (Lena), Dr. Benjamin’s secretary, smiles pleasingly yet it’s a gesture of deceit. The employees are all on their toes because Nair threatens to shut the place down. Yet there’s more to the place than what meets the eye. What you’re seeing as you traverse its many rooms isn’t merely the construct of a building…it’s also the construct of a mind.
The only instance we leave these walls is through a personal diary, when it becomes a narrative tool. Written by Nithya’s father, it takes us to another building, a palace, where the inmates are just as many, and just as dangerous. It is also during these flashbacks, once later through Nithya, that the film finds balance, both structural and mental. But the film’s images, at least those set within the asylum, seem more borrowed than original. The look of the nun, the way Nithya behaves, it all feels like images we’ve seen before. The other characters too don’t do much except create intrigue. The painter for one, was especially disappointing. How delicious is the idea of a painter being able to paint future events. Yet when his “powers” are used, it’s only to reveal what’s we’ve already seen. It’s much the same with the lover boy as well. You might as well have named him Mr. Red Herring. But the objects and words that are thrown at you, never really come together in the head.
“Schadenfreude”, repeats one of the inmates as though the word was his discovery. The concept of a crystal ball is tossed around as is a loose thread unravelling from Dr. Nair’s sweater. A photo too, torn into many pieces, finds a mention yet its relevance is fairly straightforward. These may perhaps lead to interesting observations on second viewing, but they only remain successful in distracting us from noticing the film’s major secret.
Which isn’t really shocking, especially for those who’ve seen similar films before. But to be fair, the clues were always there. The surrealist hallways, the hidden key, the gunshots, the seventh inmate… it was always about knowing where to look. The songs too remain a major dampener. The use of one in particular, about the father and his daughter, doesn’t work at all.
Yet it’s Fahadh Faasil’s performance that I found most fascinating. It’s only natural to think why such a gifted actor resorts to certain odd expressions in this film. Yet on hindsight, one understands the tight rope walk it must have been to leave clues for us through acting, even when he doesn’t have the writing to fall back on. It’s a film with many flaws, perhaps with many holes in its writing. But it certainly tries, taking us to its own world and leaving us there for a little while even after the film is over. It is also a film that begs a second viewing and that can’t be a bad thing at all.