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Why Aattam Is A Masterpiece

Last updated on: March 21, 2024 16:10 IST

What follows is essentially a long scene set in a single location, and you watch in amazement as the scene grows into one of Indian cinema's funniest and most spectacular pieces of sustained craftsmanship, accumulating emotional power and subtext, growing wings and claws, becoming its own beast, applauds Sreehari Nair.

IMAGE: The Attam poster. Photograph: Kind courtesy Anand Ekarshi/Instagram

Given that it deals with a case of sexual harassment, Anand Ekarshi's Aattam could well have been your typical finger-wagging sort of movie.

But Ekarshi, who locates the story in a troupe of amateur theatre artists, blessedly does not possess the temperament of a mudslinger.

In a movie about 'plays' and 'masks', suggesting that human beings are two-faced would have been the easy thing to do.

Ekarshi, however, does not believe in shaping his characters so as to present a thesis. He puts himself in his characters' tattered sports shoes and their Paragon sandals, and gets inside their curly heads and balding noggins. In short, he does not write out his characters, he writes as them.

Consequently, if you go into Aattam expecting a single-line denunciation of society, you'll be surprised to come up against a symphony of voices.


Now, the voices in Aattam do have definite roots in workaday lives.

In the troupe, there's an Ayurvedic masseur of slimy proportions, a mousy priest, a grouchy driver, a failed business partner, and a chef at a fast-food restaurant who wears his apron like a cape.

There's a sexagenarian who at once mooches off God and his careerist wife.

The only lady in the troupe, Anjali, is a setsquare-and-ruler-wielding architect.

One of the players arrives at rehearsals donning the Indian Oil T-Shirt from his petrol pump.

IMAGE: Anand Ekarshi watches as Sanosh Murali gets his 'just touch-up and no make-up' done. Photograph: Kind courtesy Anand Ekarshi/Instagram

So this is a drama troupe of passionate amateurs, close-knit yet free-floating, and Anand Ekarshi mounts the scenes of their backstage interactions and their after-show deviltries so that the atmosphere feels sexually charged.

You can intuit that in this electric atmosphere, falling in love with Anjali is possible, casual sex is possible, and equally possible is an act of groping or molestation.

The groper-in-question is Hari, the one 'professional actor' in the troupe (Shajohn approaches the part with a gustatory chuckle), and his presence is kind of like having a Ranji Trophy discard camp among a bunch of nifty box-cricket practitioners.

Vinay Fort appears as Vinay (he's the chef who overstretches his apron), and it's an ingenious inside joke that the characters played by Fort and Shajohn, the only two established names in the cast, would have difficulty dealing with each other.

The basic thrust of the plot involves Anjali telling Vinay that Hari had violated her after a night of revelry, which results in the men of the troupe calling a meeting to decide the future course of action.

What follows is essentially a long scene set in a single location, and you watch in amazement as the scene grows into one of Indian cinema's funniest and most spectacular pieces of sustained craftsmanship, accumulating emotional power and subtext, growing wings and claws, becoming its own beast.

Ekarshi pitches the scene as a mansion with many rooms.

It's a mansion where a social-minded cinephile can get his tracts about class wars ratified, where a feminist can derive her daily dose of men-bashing, and where a sensualist like myself can rediscover the music in Malayali speech.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Anand Ekarshi/Instagram

The conversation about whether to expel Hari or not goes from diatribe to puff, is taken up again, cooked over a low flame, brought to a boil and allowed to dissipate, and then approached from another vantage point.

Every now and then, someone puts forth his opinion with a benevolence that's characteristic of dictators: 'This is what I feel. Now you think about it.'

And as this game of hit-and-run goes through its numerous iterations, Ekarshi permits a whole range of vocal tics, from the word-swallowing of North Malabar to the circumlocutions of Trivandrum, their time in the sun.

What we have here is an acoustician's delight.

One moment you feel tuned into a universal chorus of confusion, the very next moment a distinctive voice breaks through, and as its vapidity is slowly revealed to you, the inverter in the house starts to beep, and something else snaps.

And as this long scene plays out, you can feel Anand Ekarshi realising his vision.

Aattam represents the very best of what we loosely refer to as the Malayalam New Wave; for this is not a movie that's happy with translating a good script to the screen, this is a movie where something interesting has been written, then rehearsed, then rewritten with all the juicy ad-libs looped in, and finally shot.

Ergo, it feels as though the actors are co-creators of their destinies, as though they have come up with their own lines, and 'in character'.

When a graying chap (the one who dresses himself in the Indian Oil T-shirt) talks about the balloon-like growth in his head, the frame that separates the performer from us in the audience stands dissolved.

It's not just the lines, the individuality of the characters can be felt in an off-the-cuff raise of the eyebrow, the countless tones of indignation and outrage (Vinay Fort aces these gradations), and random lectures on choice of words ('cheap' is decreed to be unacceptable, however democratic the discussion).

This way, the movie achieves new meanings.

The actors in the drama troupe seem suspended in a situation where life has become a play, and where their every gesture and utterance cannot help but be an inspired act of improvisation.

IMAGE: Anand Ekarshi directs the 'very first shot of Aattam', calling it the 'special one'. Photograph: Kind courtesy Anand Ekarshi/Instagram

You never once feel more virtuous than any of the characters, or condescend to any of the attitudes being portrayed on the screen. The writing and acting together open you up to new dimensions of humanity.

I could see that the hyper-religious underachiever is susceptible to his late-night swoons.

I understood that the knuckle-dragging conservative needs his quilt of self-righteousness.

I woke up to the idea that even sexism can be stately.

Through all this, Anurudh Aneesh's camera pauses to pick up just the right expressions of gloating and Schadenfreude.

When Vinay, the pot-stirrer, finds his plans coming to fruition, the camera settles on his smirky face, so that we can almost see horns sprouting from his forehead.

There are other instances of eyes shining on a dime and still more instances of beards acquiring a grizzly texture.

It would be a shame to reduce Aattam to a moral point ('the hypocrisies of others' is too self-serving a theme) when its true achievements are aesthetic. Ekarshi refines the interactions in the movie to such a degree that 'conversational' feels as good as 'musical'.

The musicality is a throwback to the speech patterns in such films as Maheshinte Prathikaram, Angamaly Diaries, Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, Joji, Super Sharanya and Thallumaala, and it's a reminder of why the synthetic, gooey, cosseting exchanges in Malaikottai Vaaliban felt so painful.

The music in Malayali speech is at the heart of Aattam, and toward the end, if the movie seems to be rummaging for a mere 'statement', it has to be read in the context of that hoary belief that symphonies are never finished, they are abandoned.

IMAGE: Zarin Shihab. Photograph: Kind courtesy Anand Ekarshi/Instagram

Throughout this breathless trail, Zarin Shihab, as Anjali, does a marvelous job of conveying exhaustion without ever letting the wit leak out of the movie (it's a terrific example of how to play the 'exuberant agitator').

Even as she holds up her end of the argument, what Anjali tries to salvage are those rumblings of love and trust that she senses for at least a few people in the drama troupe. And when the last of the self-declared Mohicans disappoints her, she exits the stage in a fit of desperate laughter.

The laughing exit is one of the most astonishing evocations of clear-headedness that I have seen at the movies: It's Anjali's true revolt.

The symphony, she realises, is poised to go on and on. And so she abandons it.

Aattam streams on Amazon Prime Video.