Director Anand Ekarshi says ‘Aattam’ discusses how auditing a crime against a woman can be as criminal as the crime

‘Aattam’, says Anand, explores the auditing of a crime against a woman and how even the investigation intimidates and persecutes the survivor

January 20, 2024 02:38 pm | Updated January 24, 2024 05:20 pm IST

Anand Ekarshi, director of Aattam

Anand Ekarshi, director of Aattam | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Eleven men and a woman. When the woman is molested by one of the men, it sets off a series of incidents that rips off the masks of the men. The discussion lays bare the real face of the men and their attitudes, which puts the burden of proving the veracity of her accusation on the woman.

In a dialogue-heavy, hard-hitting narrative, debutant director Anand Ekarshi’s Aattamexposes the hypocrisy, moral policing, and archaic values of a patriarchal society. Anand, a theatre person, says he wanted to talk about a crime, its aftermath, and examine how society audits the crime. Aaatam, which premiered at the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI) film festival, was the opening film of the Indian Panorama Feature Film Section at the International Film Festival of India and won the award for the best Malayalam film at the International Film Festival of Kerala.

Edited excerpts from an interview with the director.

What were the circumstances that led to Aattam?

I was part of Lokadharmi (a theatre group based in Kochi) for the past 18 years. So was actor Vinay Forrt. But for Kalabhavan Shajohn and Zarin Shihab, all the actors in Aattam have worked with each other for 18 years.

Vinyay Forrt in a still from Aaattam.

Vinyay Forrt in a still from Aaattam. | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

During a trip with them, Vinay told me that the theatrepersons were looking for a chance in cinema. Apart from being theatre actors, they earned their livelihood as tile layers, drivers, painters, loading workers and so on. Vinay wanted them to come into the realm of cinema and make their living as actors.

At that point, I was writing something else. He told me that if I could write something for them, he would be part of the movie and support it in every way he could. That was an extremely emotional moment for me. I had never thought of bringing them to cinema. They are my friends as well. So, I switched to this project. The story was written for the cast. Usually, an idea comes, then the story and the screenplay.

Aattam is winning glowing reviews…

It feels wonderful. Everyone is excited. It started of as a small emotional idea. Then it got selected to prestigious festivals. Producer Ajith Joy went all the way to support the film and the actors. It’s such a small film and one can’t be sure of commercial success. But he was confident about the film. One should always get a producer who is so invested in the project. Rarely would you find people who would back these kind of films; almost all of us were newcomers.

What were the dynamics that you wanted to bring to the story?

The first and foremost idea was the dynamics between a collective and an individual. Collectively, there are 11 men and I got the individual to be a woman. Then I wondered about the dynamics. Does the collective have a mind of its own? Or is it always the individual who speaks up for truth and justice? Can a group of people arrive at a consensus? I also thought about the process of democracy and the process of majoritarianism and the individual. Then I decided it would be an engaging crime drama. That is when I thought about this crime. It’s relevant, it’s universal and it has always been happening but it is being discussed very strongly these days.

Zarin Shihab in a scene from the film Aattam.

Zarin Shihab in a scene from the film Aattam. | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

So, there is this assault, a molestation…. That is how crime came into the story. Next came the effort to make it different without being preachy or black and white. I thought about how we could expose the grey shades. How can I show that the auditing of the crime is as criminal as the crime itself? I have read and heard that for the woman who go through the auditing of the crime, (it) is as traumatic as the crime itself. When people don’t believe you, when they doubt your intentions, continuously question the actuality of the crime and when they cross the survivor herself, it is unbelievably traumatic for the woman. And when it comes from a group she has known for 16 years, it is all the more traumatic. That’s the subject I had to deal with….

Was the writing an internal process or did you discuss it with someone?

It was an internal process. Something happens when you are writing because you have collected so much information about perspectives and psyche of people. All the years of travelling, interacting with people and reading might have helped but while writing a script, I don’t do much research.

How did you choose the actors for your characters?

I have not even changed the names of the actors in the movie (laughs).  When you have known each other for almost two decades, then to come on set and suddenly call them by a different name involves a bit of ingenuity, a lack of honesty. Names are irrelevant to this story. Even the occupation of their characters is quite similar to what the actors do in real life. Sanosh is a percussionist who has a hustle on the side. I have tried to keep them as real as possible but for the attitudes of their characters. If such a case (as discussed in the film) were to happen in their midst, their response may not would be the same as that of their characters.

Anand Ekarshi and the actors on the set of Aattam.

Anand Ekarshi and the actors on the set of Aattam. | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Since the role of Hari is important, I wanted someone from cinema, a good performer, to play the character. Even if the character appeared only in a scene or two, it had to be a face that would be remembered by the audience. But the toughest to cast was Anjali. Fortunately, during the audition, we had short-listed five artistes. Zarina gave an amazing performance during the audition. She has a theatre background, she used to work in English plays in Chennai. That helped.

The shaping of the film…

Anand Ekarshi with the cast of Aattam.

Anand Ekarshi with the cast of Aattam. | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

We did about 35 days of rehearsals and seven days on location. The rehearsals were with camera, shot divisions.... When newcomers get 42 days of rehearsals with the camera, they become comfortable with the dialogues and they would not have to remember the dialogues. It would have seeped into their subconscious. Then they can concentrate on the nuances of acting and spaces. It becomes more like behaviour on screen rather than acting on screen.

What are you planning next?

There is this weight of expectations but I am not burdened by it. Next is a love story. I want to explore what it is all about. I have just finised basic sketches.

What about the casting for that?

It will be different. I feel it would be difficult to find the actor to play the male character. Cinema has actors to play the female lead.This film will be bigger in scale, and it will be completely different from Aattam in terms of treatment, making and narrative. It is a story I had thought of earlier.

The dialogues touched upon discussions centred around cases involving crimes against women. Was that deliberately done to root the film in reality?

A still from the film

A still from the film | Photo Credit: SWAROOP KUMAR

It was unconsciously done. Many viewers have been asking me about this. At MAMI, four students spoke to me. They told me that a very similar incident as shown onscreen was happening at their institute. And those people were speaking the same lines as the men in the film. Perhaps while writing, the writer becomes that person (saying those lines). I really don’t know.

You exposed the bro code… where the men close ranks to put the woman in a corner…

It was very important for me that the film should not be preachy. Once, you start doing that, the movie becomes boring. If a script is written just for the sake of political correctness and ticking the right boxes to impress and win brownie points, then it is a disservice to the script, to the people and the form and to your own self. Even without making it obvious, the audience will understand in its totality the politics being discussed in the film. You cannot fake it.

Cinema is so transparent a medium, it will expose the writer and the director (if they are espousing values they don’t believe in). My point it, never fake it. If you are wrong, it is better to learn from your mistakes about certain perspectives rather than pretend to be someone you are not. This is a place with a lot of people who have pretensions of progressiveness.

So, are you saying a movie need to not be aware of political correctness and so on?  

I am not against a film being politically correct. But it should be based on truth and not be an attempt to impress anyone. For instance, there is this misconception that a film must include a dance, a romance, songs and some action to entertain. It is the same wrong notion to tick the right boxes to please the critics. Then neither the critics nor the viewers are going to like it. Not even the maker will like it. He is not redeemed by his own form. The filmmaker must be aware of the political climate and everything, but the dialogues and characters should come to you naturally. It is wrong to say that no character should be politically incorrect. Unless and until there are conflicting views, what are you trying to say cannot be highlighted.

Music is used sparingly in Aattam and does not overpower the dialogues or the characters…

The music director Basil CJ is a friend of mine since I was in college. I told him that we cannot work separately, and he stayed at my place for two months. Although there is minimal use of music, we took two-and-a-half months to do it. We wanted an international-sounding score that does not use Indian music instruments. At the same time, we wanted it to have a character of its own. It was a beautiful experience.

You decided on a theatrical release…

That was a bold decision by the producer. But there is a small struggle regarding theatres and theatre owners. Every Friday, a new film comes, suddenly, they don’t give shows or screen the film (Aattam) after 6pm. It really hits the collection and momentum of the film. Unless and until the last link in the chain, the theatre owners, support such films, which are garnering good reviews, where there are decent crowds and people clapping, it is the producer who gets hit. These movies need a certain time to grow. We need the support of theatre owners who will give space and time for these films instead of solely going by monetary concerns. If these films don’t get a chance to break even, then another producer may hesitate to bankroll such a movie. The director and actors may get movies, but we will be losing out on an important producer who chose to make an offbeat film. At the end of the day, that is disheartening. Ajith also went all the way with promotions with posters, hoarding, marketing and so on.  

Can we expect an OTT release?

Yes, talks are on. We should know in a couple of days’ time.

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