Director and writer: Anand Ekarshi
Cast: Vinay Forrt, Zarin Shihab, Kalabhavan Shajohn
In Anand Ekarshi’s striking debut Aattam (The Play), the minutest of details have the ability to keep playing on your mind, as you try to piece together its significance in the larger scheme of things. On a factual level, this includes doubts that arise because of the recurring appearance of a crucial Bluetooth speaker, a major clue if you look at this film as an investigation. But on an abstract level, what gets you scratching your head are the seemingly invisible. Like the sound of a coconut falling on the roof of the most important location in the film. It happens right before 11 men sit down to ‘discuss’ a sexual harassment case that threatens to shake up their drama troupe. So the sound of a fallen coconut right then, begins to sound like a mallet striking the judge’s table to announce that the court is now in session. Or given the duality of the film’s title, it’s perhaps a stand-in for the bell that signals the start of a play.
It’s this duality that keeps Aattam intriguing right through. At no point do we believe we really know the person we’re looking at. Conditioned to think of each character as either good or evil, we find ourselves grappling through our judgements as we observe 11 complex men, each of whom are as fascinating as the last. This includes the temple priest with an obviously misogynistic outlook, perhaps fuelled by betrayal in the past. Or the pompous theater veteran who first worries about their inability as artistes to convert seedy men into pious angels, minutes before slut-shaming the victim. Or most puzzlingly, the broke-AF petrol pump worker who refers to the victim Anjali (an excellent Zarin Shihab) as “molé” (daughter) as he passes judgement on her integrity. All the men appear to be manipulative and opportunistic, yet none of them are outrageous enough for us to feign ignorance in the comfort that they are fictional. In some instances, we might even catch ourselves agreeing with their judgements.
With a majority of the film’s events taking place in near real-time, there’s never a break long enough to dwell on them. Even the three or four instances where music is used is to fleetingly convey the end of one “act”, as the play moves from one stage setup to the next. It’s real-time speed not only creates moments out of non-events, but it also slyly converts Aattam into the darkest of comedies. Some of these are downright hilarious like when Vinay (Vinay Forrt) cheekily forgets about how distraught he is when he looks at a plate of starfruit. Others, like the introduction of the term “Tactile Hallucination”, reveal how farcical their attitudes are, even when the scene itself plays out like a mini tragedy.
Their troupe is called Arangu, which translates to the stage. It is another allusion to the irony the film operates on with each character performing even better in real life than on stage. What doubles down on this irony is the seemingly progressive masks they wear in reality, either as educated liberals (like the newspaper editor) or as practitioners of a superior art-form (like their master who admittedly chose economics over talent). Yet when push comes to shove, we realise how all of them are like a lot of us, conflicted, but a small price away from exchanging morality for selfish growth.
The writing is consistently surprising with the film working both as an intricate study of the male psyche and a thriller, inching closer to a reveal. In this process, our loyalties waver, but as viewers, the film is careful enough to never alienate Anjali. And it does this, even when it’s aware of the locker-room like setting where much of the film is taking place in. Anand Ekarshi also leaves us with interesting doubts, with us realising how a chamber drama that began at a dining table, culminates with these men finally standing outside, as day turns into night. Divided into three parts, not only do we see the masks coming off gradually with the coming of the night (and alcohol), but we also witness these careful, cultured men slowly transforming into reckless beasts, as a debate degenerates into fist-flights.
And with the film introducing us to a set of spectacular new performers, the ambiguity of the writing only gets better with each new actor. In a film that begins and ends with the stage, we come to realise that the only passage of truth appears when these actors are on stage. This is where the film becomes more than an investigation or a procedural and it doesn’t matter who committed the crime when you’ve realised each one of those men are equally culpable. As the stage becomes the place with the least hypocrisy, Anjali too finds respite there, as she seeks out the familiar faces sitting in the audience. And with the judgements we have made during the course of the film, it’s not shocking if we find a version of ourselves sitting right there in the crowd, urging Anjali to perform her truth for us, either to believe her or not…
Aattam, which won the Grand Jury Award at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, will get its Asia Premiere at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival