Director Shalini Usha Nair’s Akam, which releases today, explores the myth of the Yakshi through the tale of a marriage gone awry.

Shalini Usha Nair implores us not to ask her about the challenges of being a ‘woman’ filmmaker in the male-dominated world that is the Malayalam film industry. “Ask me instead, the challenges of being a director,” says Shalini, who’s debut feature film Akam, starring Fahad Faasil and Anumol in the lead, hits screens today. Admonishing us ever so slightly, she adds: “A director is a director. There is really no question of gender having a role to play in the scheme of things. Actually, it’s high time we change this regressive mindset. Only if we do so can the industry really move forward.”

Nonetheless, Shalini’s contribution as woman filmmaker cannot go unacknowledged. After all, with Akam she has achieved what only a handful of women working behind-the-scenes in Mollywood have ever achieved. It was, however, not without its challenges, says Shalini, who also wrote the script of the film.

“It had all the challenges of a small film made on a small budget. Akam was shot over a tight 27 days and we had to get the best results within that time frame. It was a struggle to get perfect sound because we shot in sync sound (sound recording at the time of filming). It does make performances more natural but we had to deal with a lot of noise interference. For example, even on the 12th floor of an apartment building, our equipment picked up the sound of loudspeakers from a nearby temple and the sounds of construction work in another building! Also, we had to time the shoot according to a lot of little factors such as the prosthetic on Fahad’s face (make-up by Pattanam Rasheed), which lasted only for about five hours,” says Shalini, a former media-person, who learnt filmmaking at the Prague Film School in The Czech Republic.

Akam, a psychological thriller, is an adaptation of Malayalam litterateur Malayatoor Ramakrishnan’s seminal 1969 novel Yakshi, which, though rooted in Malayali culture, explores the universal penchant for demonising female sexuality. According to myth, the Yakshi is a female demon, who, in the guise of a beautiful woman, seduces men and drinks their blood. Akam unfolds through the story of Srinivas (Fahad), a troubled young architect, and his wife, the beautiful and enigmatic Ragini (Anumol), who he married on a whim. Soon Srinivas’ insecurities come to the fore and he begins to suspect that she is a Yakshi. “Srini can’t relate to Ragini on many levels. In any realtionship power keeps shifting. When there is a communication breakdown the situation becomes amplified. At first that’s the charm but later on it becomes a source of his frustration and consequently, fearing a threat to his very existence, he begins to demonise her,” explains Shalini.

The director is all praise for both her lead actors. “Both Fahad and Anumol lived their roles, always going that extra mile in search of perfection. Fahad is truly very talented an actor. Anu, meanwhile, stretched herself to her limits and constantly challenged herself. Actually, because we were such a small crew, the process of creativity was very organic, with everyone listening to and helping out each other,” says Shalini.

Actor-producer Prakash Bare, Shelley and Sajitha Madathil appear in significant roles in Akam, which has been produced by Box Office Cinema.

Christopher John Smith, Shalini’s American classmate in Prague, has cranked the camera, while many of her other friends such as Arunima Shankar (editing), Geetu Mohandas (casting), Cilara Jacob (costumes), Antony Ruban (sound design) and Suman Roy Mahapatra (production design) have also pitched in with their creativity. The film has already won much praise on the festival circuit and was selected for screening at the International Film Festival of Kerala, the Dubai International Film Festival, the Shanghai International Film Festival, the South Asian International Film Festival, New York, to name a few.