Debutant director Anand Ekarshi’s Malayalam film draws our attention to women safety in a man’s world. Zarin Shihab, Vinay Forrt lead an impressive ensemble cast.

Rating: (4 / 5)

Aattam (2024)

By Mayur Lookhar

Who doesn’t like the year to begin on a good note? Bollywood critics, too, yearn for early positivity. Given its history, one can’t necessarily bank on Bollywood to ring in the New Year with optimism. Your reviewer is fortunate to start 2024 on a joyous note – courtesy, a Malayalam film produced by Joy Movie Productions.

Aattam stays true to its meaning wherein the Malayalam feature plays out like a riveting play. First-time director Anand Ekarshi’s Aattam [2024] is a fine, subtle examination of human character under different circumstances.

Impressed by their play, a white couple invites the Kerala theatre troupe Arangu to party in their private villa in Kochi. What catches the eye of the foreigners is the presence of the lone woman in the troupe. The play is led by Hari [Kalabhavan Shajohn] who is also a known film actor. The director gives the party a miss, but the 13 cast members enjoy the comforts of the luxury villa. Tension brews when Anjali [Zarin Shihab] hurriedly leaves the villa at dawn. A week later, her colleague and lover Vinay [Forrt] asks everyone, save Hari and Anjali, to gather at co-actor Madan’s house to disclose how Anjali was allegedly groped that night in the villa.

The 11 men discuss, debate at length the alleged incident.  Majority of them are initially in favour of ousting the accused. However, midway through the discussion, a certain opportunity presents itself leaving the ten men [minus Vinay] caught in a moral dilemma.

At 139 minutes, Ekarshi’s film is largely a chamber drama where bulk of the screenplay is conversational and little drama. The film begins with a play, and it ends with one. However, all throughout the 139 minutes, the Malayalam feature churns out like a play, especially once the discussion begins at Madan’s place.

Ekarshi’s film inadvertently draws our attention to women safety in a man’s world.  Corporates have code of conduct, ethics committee but it’s never an easy task to take appropriate action, more so when the accused is a big shot. It is here that a public, media/social media pressure can force a company to act. That always comes with the risk of acting in a hasty manner. Women safety in entertainment space has seldom moved beyond the juicy headlines. Whilst certain production houses may have disciplinary clauses, six years on since the #MeToo movement, very few victims stand vindicated. Unfortunately for Anjali, the grim realities of a humble theatre perhaps kill all hopes of getting any justice. As it turns out, Anjali was never comfortable to speak on this alleged assault. 

A normal victim is likely to evoke sympathy, but the same society can get polarized over #MeToo allegations from actresses. Some starlets can perhaps milk the allegations for PR. No, we are not being judgemental. Back in 2017-18, a starlet had accused a yesteryear top filmmaker of inappropriate conduct. Two days later, she withdrew her allegations whilst holidaying in picturesque Maldives. Let’s get it straight, we believe in every word of Anjali, but we’re as helpless as her. Her co-artists debate at length, throw up various theories, dig out past matters, but none can arrive at any consensus. In the end, everything just feels like an ‘aattam’ (play).  Phew, can you really trust actors?

Zarin Shihab

The fine story is backed by neat writing (subtitling), gripping screenplay and top-notch performances led by Shihab.  Born in Uttar Pradesh, the young Malayalee actor had made her debut in Raj & DK’s Hindi series The Family Man – Season 1 [2019]. (Remember the nurse who was emotionally tricked by the injured terrorist in hospital?) Although a woman’s dignity has allegedly been violated, Ekarshi doesn’t turn his Anjali into a crestfallen soul. That she only meets her co-artists after a week perhaps helped Anjali to come to grips with the trauma. Seven days later, she is visibly hurt, but Anjali won’t let this episode destroy her.  She is hurting but there is no needless explosion of emotions. Anjali remains the focal point even when she isn’t present on the screen. There’s a certain maturity to Shihab in handling the grief of her character. 

Vinay Forrt (L) and Zarin Shihab

Noted Malayalam actor Vinay Forrt plays the protective lover Vinay to the T.  However, is his action motivated by a sense of justice or envy? Ah, actors and their insecurities. Kalabhavan Shajohn is equally impressive as the pompous film and theatre actor Hari. Though nauseating, Hari’s presence is vital for the survival of Arunga. All other artistes are convincing in their roles.

Though a dialogue heavy film, Ekarshi smartly weaves in natural background score in certain scenes. The story, fine performances make you more hooked to the core plot than the horizon. One, however, is curious by the conversations involving the rich foreign couple. Arunga’s play is in Malayalam. We don’t recollect the foreigners with any audio headset [for translation]. If they loved the play, we presume that they must be knowing little bit of Malayalam. So why does Hari need to translate when the couple is talking to his humble co-actors?

The men outnumber the women in this story, but some men can’t hide their hypocrisy. Without being preachy, Aattam compels a viewer to initiate a dialogue around women safety. Ekarshi’s men raise many questions, but provide no answers. The debutant filmmaker leaves the answers to the viewers. Meanwhile, we couldn’t have asked for a better start to 2024.

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