There are films that sell themselves on their mood. Among veterans, I have observed the quality in films by Yasujiro Ozu, Federico Fellini and even Stanley Kubrick (thinking only of 2001: A Space Odyssey at this moment). Of late, Gasper Noe, Darren Aronofsky and Alfonso Cuaron have successfully nurtured this attribute in their films. Close to Kerala shores, Malayalam film director Shyamaprasad often finds it important to set the atmosphere in place before venturing into other nitty-gritties on papers, irrespective of the genre his films belong to. As for genres, what is a suspense thriller without its atmosphere lending a layer of mystique? Director Vivek’s Athiran is a psychological thriller which works on spook quotient as a bona fide horror feature would do.
Set in the ‘70s, Athiran is highly distanced from all things external. Be it politics or other socio-cultural elements that one might otherwise be seen in films of similar ilk, the film focusses only on incidents within an isolated mental hospital placed in the middle of a jungle. So much so that one initially wonders why Athiran has specifically chosen this time period. At the hospital, the treatment methodology by the psychiatrist-in-charge Dr. Benjamin (Atul Kulkarni) is criticized by government patrons and the property is often inspected by the officials. For the latest inspection, Thiruvananthapuram Medical College sends Dr. Kannan Nair (Fahadh Faasil) who is forever clad in natty trench coats and sweaters even though he lands up there with a tiny briefcase.
To set the atmosphere, Athiran kicks off by capturing the landscape with a spate of aerial shots wherein the Amazon-like woods and the adjoining river is profoundly established. The household-help Avarachan (Nandu) is seen to collect weekly grocery for the hospital in a tiny hand-held packet besides newspapers from the past five days. He takes a ‘shortcut’ to reach the property by crossing a river and also a couple of small hills. At the hospital, the costume designer seems to be having a helluva time as the inmates and staff members are decked up in flowing gowns, fitting dresses, silk sarees, printed shirts, the nun’s robe, snazzily trousers, well-polished shoes et al. Even the doctor-in-charge (Kulkarni) seems to be a clotheshorse as nothing else would explain his lavender-and-blue outfit combination in one scene. If Athiran, its overt dressiness and somewhat conveniently artificial surroundings are things that can be overlooked, you are in for merrier times.
To give the director (Vivek) due credit, the film’s choice to confine to a smaller radius adds greatly in generating an air of mystery. The ghost house-like setting is pitch-perfect for a film that throws in surprises galore. Filled with jump scares, there are numerous events that blur the barrier between a thriller and a full-fledged horror fare. Vivek’s story might be of run-of-the-mill variety but it is PF Mathews’ screenplay structure that lends the film its much-needed persona. The flashbacks arrive at the right points and the revelations take place only when they are needed to – though not without its share of discrepancies (more to that later). Athiran’s tricks to emanate shock succeeds in most parts while keeping you on tenterhooks from start to end.
That said, the loopholes begin to emerge when the film approaches its finale. That is when the entire flashback portion involving Nithya’s (Sai Pallavi) deceased family stops making sense. You never really find an inference why Dr. Benjamin resorted to certain unruly treatment methods which might have given Nurse Ratched a complex. The screenplay also avoids to tell us what might have transcended between the mass murders and Nithya’s admission to the hospital. When and why was the diary with all details on Nithya’s life written? How did her conservative family forge a close connection with the Goa-born Dr. Benjamin? What exactly had happened to Lakshmi (Shanti Krishna)?
Athiran, like several horror films, also attempts to mislead you with unnecessary side characters and certain quirks of those who matter. The young male inmate Jeevan (played by Sudeep Nair) is present only to deceive us. If we connect the dots, we wonder how the martial arts-trained Nithya doesn’t make use of her self-defense skills when he attempts to assault her. Similarly, there is a scene towards the interval point where Kannan is chased by a group of dogs, which is a standard genre cliché and is forcefully staged in the story. Yes, it does offer decent scares and a visually striking interval point jolt but that is all about it. Additionally, Benjamin’s questionable practice of hypnotism and a certain memory erasure technique (ala Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) lose relevance as the film closes in a highly conformist manner.
Athiran excels big-time in the cinematography and sound design departments as they contribute brilliantly into making it an out-and-out spooky fare. My favourite scene in the film would be the one where Kannan enters a clandestine chamber in the bungalow with a key that he captures from the ornate wall outside its door. The staging, the acting, the editing and the way each element is placed in the scene accentuates to rendering Athiran a major technical win in almost all departments. Acting is top-notch with Sai Pallavi leading the pack in a studied turn as an autistic person. For Fahadh Faasil, the character might be a mere cakewalk but to his credit, the actor gets the physicality bang on despite the film being heavy on exterior gimmicks. Atul Kulkarni is well-cast as the eccentric psychiatrist and so is Lena as his assistant. The eccentric inmates in the hospital are badly penned in entirety except for the painter with a mysterious ability to foresee events. Vijay Menon and Shanthi Krishna are typecast whereas Ranji Panicker plays the powerful yet loving father to good effect.
As Athiran makes up for its less original premise with its atmosphere, narrative pattern and numerous cleverly staged chilling interludes, one cannot ignore the director’s inability to tell his story without going all tell-tale. The opening shot itself projects this deficiency as 1967 stands planted in front of a character’s residence to establish the year. Even if it was meant to be a smart ploy instead of having a subscript on the screen, it does not come very smartly across. Athiran also sees the supporting cast (the domestic help, the caretaker, the inmates etc) uttering details about the establishment aloud for no apparent reason other than educating the unassuming viewer. They do not break the fourth wall but their portions of speaking to themselves and also certain brief connecting scenes do not make the cut as good filmmaking strategies. Nevertheless, the film is a decent enough follow up to the leading man’s ongoing golden run in the Malayalam film industry. Athiran does scare you and gives the worth of every penny spent but not without leaving aside a stream of questions to ponder over.