Thursday, January 18, 2024



Release date:

South India: January 5, 2024

Rest of India: January 12, 2024


Anand Ekarshi 


Zarin Shihab, Vinay Forrt, Kalabhavan Shajohn, Selvaraj Raghavan V.R., Aji Thiruvankulam, Sudheer Babu, Madan Babu, Santhosh Piravom, Sijin Sijeesh, Jolly Antony, Nandan Unni, Sanosh Murali, Prasanth Madhavan




Conversations on the all-pervasiveness of patriarchy and violence routinely draw this clichéd caveat from defensive participants: Not All Men. Aattam is a quiet reminder that perpetrators of male aggression and anti-women discrimination cannot be viewed in isolation. If you add to them the enablers and the silent spectators – some apathetic, some afraid, some prejudiced, some pre-occupied, some opportunistic, including those who may not be active perpetrators but never protest since the status quo privileges them – then the appropriate rejoinder often is: Yes, All Men.


But let’s get back to the messaging later. 


Aattam (The Play) is a fabulous Malayalam thriller by the debutant writer-director Anand Ekarshi. It defies most conventions of the genre. Only a couple of its twists are in the form of actual events and overt action, the rest are swift changes in attitude among the characters. Sometimes, a flicker of a facial expression or the quickness of a reaction betrays an individual’s relief at being given a justification to change a stance they took to appear politically correct. Without any of the tools traditionally used by thrillers, the suspense is sustained on the strength of the written word. 


Until the very last line is spoken in Aattam, there is no let-up in the grip this question has on the narrative: who done it? By then though, the far bigger question is: how did everyone else respond?


The film is set in a drama troupe in Kerala called Arangu (meaning: stage) that’s performing a play with 13 artistes: 12 men and a woman. The latter, Anjali (Zarin Shihab), is an architect. She is in a clandestine relationship with her co-actor Vinay (Vinay Forrt), a chef. Hari (Kalabhavan Shajohn) is a movie star who is yet to play a lead on screen. His comparatively high profile nevertheless gives him a stature in the group that some among them resent. None of the rest are full-time theatre professionals either, each one’s primary source of income lies elsewhere, because the stage is not a lucrative career. Some are financially struggling, some are comfortably off. 


Late one night after a party, Anjali is molested by a colleague. When the others hear of this, they assemble to determine the culprit’s fate. Saying anything more about the plot would be a spoiler (though it must be mentioned that subtitles referring to groped breasts when the survivor only uses the word for “groped” is not only wrong, it changes the import of a crucial interaction).


Through the course of 2 hours and 20 minutes, Ekarshi brings to life every single one of these 13 people. Although the investigation in Aattam is being conducted by those close to Anjali, it mirrors the standard systemic and social response to a woman who objects to sexual assault: suspicion, victim blaming, questions about her looks, attire, conduct, sexual morality and so on. 


For a filmmaker to be aware of these hurdles women face is not remarkable considering that they have been highlighted in the public discourse for years, especially since the social media explosion turned the entire world into our drawing room. What is remarkable in Aattam, however, is how deftly and convincingly they are transposed on to inter-personal relations in an intimate setting. 


Ekarshi takes Aattam beyond just these broad aspects of male violence and the plight of woman complainants though. In the minutiae of the characterisation and the almost microscopic touches in his script, he reveals himself to be a committed student of gender politics. What we witness in Aattam therefore, is not empathy alone, but also a keen eye that has observed the marginalisation of women at fundamental levels in art and in life: in Indian cinema, including cinema on sexual violence against women, in real-world deliberations, including deliberations specifically about women’s concerns, and in decision-making involving women’s own bodies and lives. 


This point is embedded in the very structure of Aattam: the choice of 12 men and only one woman as the principal players.


The numbers 12 and 13 are significant. There are 12 months in a year, Jesus had 12 male Apostles, school in large parts of India ends with Class 12, and while India no longer has a jury system, the one cinephiles track most closely is the one brought to us by Hollywood, namely, the US judiciary where juries tend to have 12 members. My favourite interpretation of those that come to my mind is that Mary Magdalene deserves to be counted as an Apostle, just as much as the 12 men – add Magdalene to the 12 and you get 13. Anjali makes Arangu whole, she also deserves to be there. 


When I first saw Aattam’s poster, I was cynical. The side-lining of women in cinema has been on my mind even more than usual since the shock of seeing outright erasure in two recent Indian films: Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana(Kannada, 2021) and Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon (Hindi, 2022 in theatres). Ekarshi pointedly assures us that his intention is not to marginalise but to spotlight marginalisation by having a journalist in Aattam’s introductory passage ask Arangu’s director why his play has only one female character. We do not hear enough of the answer to determine if it is a cover-up, but the film’s discerning nature is established from then on. 


This leaves us with the interesting question: how different would the situation have been for Anjali if there were other women in Arangu or if it had been headed by a woman? 


Or one for Ekarshi and Arangu: the present play’s script may have had only one woman character, but what is the rationale behind having no woman member at all? Not even among the crew? 


Think about it. Meanwhile, it’s heartening to see that at no point is centrality or agency taken away from Anjali despite the ups and downs in her equation with her male colleagues. You see, Aattam may feature more than one man with a saviour complex but the film itself does not have one. 

The word “aattam” has several meanings: stage performance, motion, shaking, swaying motion, oscillation. It’s a clever choice of title since, apart from the mystery of what actually happened to Anjali, it is the see-sawing, moment-to-moment shifts in the mood and views of the self-appointed jury that keep the film suspenseful in its own unique way. 


The use of sync-sound in Aattam, Renganath Ravee’s sound design and the sparing deployment of Basil CJ’s music complement the naturalism in Anurudh Aneesh’s cinematography and Mahesh Bhuvanend’s editing. All these are geared towards Ekarshi’s determinedly realistic storytelling.


The first-rate cast has been chosen well to match the director’s vision. They are all stage artistes. Only three – Vinay Forrt (PremamThamaashaMalik), Zarin Shihab (B 32 Muthal 44 Vare) and Kalabhavan Shajohn (DrishyamRamaleela) – are film stars. The rest are making their screen debuts here. Each of them is to the camera born though, adding to the vibe Aattam gives off of being a reality show in which Arangu was filmed without their knowledge.  


I first watched a preview of Aattam last year before it was unveiled on the festival circuit to  widespread applause. At the time, I wrote on Instagram that “after suffering so many mediocre and bad films, each and every time I come across a good one, my heart does a little dance of celebration”. There are few greater joys as a critic than discovering a film that takes you completely by surprise, and lives up to its early promise right down to its final frame. More so when it comes from a debutant who has the assuredness of Anand Ekarshi. Especially when it deals with marginalisation and oppression, and is so consistent that you have to know it is not pretending to care – cinema, sadly, is filled with such betrayals. Aattam has finally come to theatres, and it feels as fresh now on my nth viewing of it. Six months on, my heart is still dancing. 


Rating (out of 5 stars): 4.5   


Running time:

140 minutes 


Poster courtesy: IMDB 

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