I Saw Aattam As An Action Movie, But With Words: Anand Ekarshi

In a film driven by conversations, silence and staging become intriguing backseat companions in 'Aattam'. The director breaks down 5 scenes from the film
I Saw Aattam As An Action Movie, But With Words: Anand Ekarshi

“In Drishyam, when Meena asks where Mohanlal has buried the boy’s corpse, he tells her, “Only I know that and that information will die with me," director Anand Ekarshi recalls. "That’s what I want to say as well,” he says, when asked about the real culprit in Aattam. This Malayalam chamber drama, streaming on Amazon Prime Video, follows a 13-member theatre troupe. When Anjali (Zarin Shihab), the sole actress in the group claims she was sexually harassed by Hari (Kalabhavan Shajohn), a popular hero who has joined their team, the rest of them convene to make a decision. However, instead of treating the film as a usual whodunit, Anand focuses on how the men react to her accusation — they go on to ask for proof and even shame her. “It focuses on sexual harassment and the auditing of that harassment. Which is a bigger crime?” 

In the absence of Anjali and Hari, the men discuss the possible decisions they could arrive at. Initially, it’s hard to read their minds and their opinions oscillate. Albeit being dialogue-heavy, a lot of things remain unsaid in the film. And a lot that is said, remains ambiguous. “Since we never reveal the culprit, everybody becomes a suspect. This is something I had in my mind when writing the dialogues. To me, Aattam is a verbal action movie. I wanted the dialogue to make sense both ways, whether the person was guilty or innocent. For instance, when one of them asserts that Anjali could lie, you are unsure if it comes from a place of guilt or is a genuine expression.”

A behind-the-scene still
A behind-the-scene still

Even if only one character is speaking, you get a glimpse of most others in the frame and so their minute expressions too add to how you look at the film. It is also why even when silence takes over in a scene, something unsaid is said. In this interview, Anand takes us through 5 such impactful frames, his idea behind the staging and what the sequences probably hint at.

Scene 1

When Vinay informs Madhan about the incident, the latter calls Anjali and confirms if it really happened. We don’t get to hear her answer or see her reaction. 

Throughout the film, you hear the other person speaking only when the phone is on loudspeaker. We can take cinematic freedom to show what the other person is speaking, but I didn’t want to do it here. I didn’t want to reveal Anjali’s mind space or the actual incident. For instance, even when Anjali talks to Vinay in the previous scene, you don’t listen to the entire conversation. The details are not revealed. It is like you are using the cinematic structure to show and hide the information. 

Although Anjali never spoke to Madhan about the incident, he wanted to ensure he wasn’t lying to the other members. So he calls Anjali in this scene to make the lie a truth. After speaking with her, he tells Vinay, “She has now told me, right?” But the question he asks her, which is “It did happen, right?” marks the beginning of their insensitivity.

A lot of people also ask me why there was only one woman. It was conceived as a story centred around a group and an individual. The individual here is a woman. I could’ve had more women in the group but that would’ve become a different story. How men talk when only men are around is very different from how they talk in the presence of a woman, no matter how friendly they are.

Scene 2

When Vinay asks, “Have any of us misbehaved with her? Have any of us even thought of her in that way,” silence engulfs the space as most put their heads down. 

Since everyone is seated around the dining table, their positions, movements and expressions really matter. We rehearsed for 35 days and choreographed the scenes. None of them were aware of the real culprit and I told each of them a different name. I even told a few of them that they did it. But I told them not to discuss it with each other. Although they eventually caught on to the fact that it was all misinformation, this created a certain stress in their acting because when the culprit is around, the body reacts differently.

When Vinay asks that question, the silence is just a small suggestive scene that they might have thought of her that way. Or probably not. It could also be interpreted as the silence of a powerful question. When you look at this particular frame, you can see both the head (of the table) positions are taken by people with absolutely contrasting opinions. Cijin (left side, blue shirt) is the one who doesn’t believe Anjali while Sudhir (right side, next to Vinay) is the one who firmly says Hari should be expelled. Vinay is in the corner because, in this scene, he is just trying to manipulate them. But later, when you see them signing the letter to suspend Hari, Vinay will be sitting in Sudhir’s place.

However, towards the end, they start losing their individuality and begin to mouth each other. So, they start standing and sitting anywhere randomly. And it will be Anjali who is sitting there. For this frame, we mostly used wide lenses because we were not focusing on anybody in particular as I wasn’t judging anyone. But eventually, when they are exposed, we get close to their minds and so the camera also goes closer. From the time Anjali walked down the stairs, there was a change in blocking. We used only 50mm, 85mm and 100mm lenses and had a lot of closeups.

Scene 3

When Hari informs them about the Europe opportunity, there is a change in the atmosphere. People begin shifting sides and so does the weather. So when it finally rains, they all run back together as one group with a single wish in mind.

How the climate within them changes is reflected in the weather outside too. When I was searching for the house, I wanted a house with other surrounding spaces and a river nearby so that there is a seeming change in location but it doesn’t really change. Since we were doing sync sound, we also needed a silent space and my sound designer Renganath Ravi suggested this place. 

Just before this sequence, when Hari enters the house with an offer, there is heavy wind. The wind is often an agent of desire. Slowly, there is a change in the weather. There is turbulence and it starts raining. In fact, this exact frame was not shot on purpose. We were shooting the sequence near the river and it suddenly started raining for real. I told my DOP to just capture them running back.

If you think about it, they discuss a certain thing around the table in the morning and go to the sit-out because it’s hot and make a decision. They come back to the table to sign the letter. Likewise, they go out and discuss after Hari has left and come back into the house with one thing in mind. So, they mostly go out as individuals wanting different things and come back as a group with a decision.

Scene 4

After leaving the group, Vinay is the only one who accompanies Anjali to the bus stop. But Vinay’s intentions remain unclear. When Anjali finally understands his true colours, she says nothing. She doesn’t shout or slap him. She laughs.

Until this shot, where she asks Vinay what he thinks, she is still hopeful of their relationship. But when he says, “We won’t go on this trip without you,” everyone would’ve wanted Anjali to slap him. But I wondered what Anjali’s thoughts would be. In a way, all that she thought of Vinay and their relationship for the past 15-16 years was falling apart. She had also just understood the group, and knew that if it wasn’t Hari, it would be someone else from the group. She realises that all things happen for a reason. It’s just something beyond her capacity to comprehend and she just laughs. She laughs at the entire group, at Vinay or maybe her own life.

When you are writing a script, you are also acting. So, I had a certain rhythm and pace for each dialogue and sequence. I first let the actors do it their way and then if it was not something I had in mind, I suggested the changes and went for a retake. In this particular scene, Vinay was taking his own time, slowly delivering the dialogue. But I told him that the audience would already be aware that he is a manipulative guy and that he would disown her. So I suggested he show that in his expressions. But on the edit table, I understood that his character was still on the verge and people might still be unsure of his intentions. His transition was like a slow poison and I understood that what Vinay initially did worked well. 

Scene 5

Anjali’s final play is where art becomes her catharsis. The play though leaves a lot to our interpretations, just like the film

Whatever we see in the play is mostly something we have already seen in the film. But the final part where one of the men accepts their mistake might be her creative freedom or something that actually happened. If it was the latter, he wouldn’t be wearing a mask in real life. She would’ve met that person. However, since someone had probably told her it was all a prank, this could also be true. Or maybe not. 

But if we look at the play itself, it is her interpretation of modern theatre. The film begins with a traditional theatre play and ends with this, where she takes inspiration from something that happened in her life. For her, the table, chair and people are huge metaphors that will stay with her for a long time. Basically, hanging the culprits and hanging the chair is the comparison we drew.

Everyone processes their trauma differently and copes using different ways. In a way, Anjali lost the meaning of her past 15 years, her relationship, her memories and everything. She needs something to come out of it and the play is the answer. The inspiration for this sequence is my mother. My brother died at the age of 19 and my mother was very depressed for the next two years. Later, she started a playschool with one kid and it kept growing bigger. When her own son was taken away, she turned to teaching kids and has taught 500-600 kids till now. That’s how she came out of it. They fight their own way. This play is where the whole film began. There is a saying in Malayalam “Naadagaanthiyam Kavithuvam” which means the dramatics should end in the abstract. The drama should end in poetry and continue to be with a person.

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