March 22, 2013
Bipasha Basu, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Doyel Dhawan, Shernaz Patel, Mohan Kapur, Tilottama Shome, Darshan Jariwala, Jaideep Ahlawat
A woman divorces her physically abusive husband. The man dies shortly afterwards, returning as a spirit to haunt his wife and reclaim their child. That, in a nutshell, is the story of Aatma. Writer-director Suparn Verma’s film begins with the promise of a layered and poignant tale of domestic violence, a self-respecting woman who brooks no abuse and the things human beings do when relationships sour. This is the direction the film takes in the first half, while steering clear of most Bollywood ghost story clichés. Yes, the background score is actually not screechy, there’s barely any blood, and no one, but no one, flies in the air.
Sadly, predictability sets in in the second half. After a while you can tell from a mile who the spook will target next. By the time the climax (or rather, anti-climax) comes around, it’s clear the screenplay has failed to move beyond the potential of the original concept. As things stand, there are elements worth strongly recommending in Aatma, but they simply do not all add up.
Element No. 1: Bipasha Basu is in fine form here as Maya Verma, a woman who takes a broken marriage in her stride but begins to unravel at the prospect of the loss of her child. It’s also a pleasant change to see Bipasha in a film that presents her as a natural beauty with minimal makeup and without the aid of killer gowns or bikinis, just as any great-looking female professional might be. Doyel Dhawan is charming as little Niya and impresses with her acting skills, especially in the scene in which she sees her father’s true colours.
However, it’s a crime to cast Nawazuddin Siddiqui in a film and then give him the most poorly written part of the lot. Siddiqui plays Maya’s dead husband Abhay. What were this man’s motivations? What prompted those fits of rage and the depth of hatred for his wife? We never get to know. Still, we do get glimpses of Siddiqui’s phenomenal talent in a spooky scene involving a bathroom and a schoolteacher, and elsewhere, in the only scene that gives him the canvas he deserves, when the judge awards custody of Niya to Maya causing Abhay to explode with rage. Another actor who gets shortchanged by the writing is the wonderful Jaideep Ahlawat as a policeman investigating a string of crimes, all of them with links to Niya.
There are several points where it seems like Aatma may head in an interesting direction, but then the writer holds back. There’s a neatly executed scene in which Ahlawat’s policeman has a dream which seems to suggest that he’s getting far more involved in the case than he should be. Where did that come from? What happens thereafter? No answers. Elsewhere, Maya is told that the only way Abhay will manage to take Niya away from her is if a wedge is driven between her and the child. Why is that not carried forward? Again, no answers.
Where you can’t fault Aatma is in the departments of cinematography and production design which lend an unrelentingly eerie atmosphere to the film even when the story goes downhill. Sophie Winqvist’s camera seems to stand beside the ghost at some points observing his prey, and sometimes next to us observing them all. Sometimes it goes to floor level watching a woman walk to her death, sometimes it peers down from the balcony of a high-rise building, sometimes it watches the backs of the characters through most of a scene, sometimes it is far, sometimes it is close, and always always it’s lovely. Production designer Sukant Panigrahy complements Winqvist’s work with colours and disturbing settings that seem born to host a ghost.
The effect is particularly striking in Aatma’s two most frightening and most well-conceived scenes: one involving that aforementioned bathroom and schoolteacher, the other featuring a Hindu priest. There are other scarey moments in the film, but since they’re mostly concentrated in the first half, the impact peters out post-interval.
In the end, Aatma simply leaves you with a sense of what might have been. It might have been that much-needed Bollywood film about spousal abuse and the challenges an assertive woman faces in today’s world; it might have been the story of what loneliness and loss can do to a little child; it might have been about the pain that divorce visits on a child and the politics an evil parent can play; it might have taken us into the mind of a violent husband. The ghost could have been a metaphor here for the horrors in an ailing marriage. The supernatural angle could have been just a clever device to tell a larger story about relationships, the way Reema Kagti’s recent Talaash used the genre to show us a marriage torn apart by the trauma of the death of a child while simultaneously discussing society’s indifference to those who live on its margins.
Could have been… Might have been… Is not… Despite a good start and some truly alluring individual elements, Aatma disappoints.
Rating (out of five): **1/2
CBFC Rating (India): A
Running time: 95 minutes
Photograph courtesy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aatma_(film)