The story begins in an unfinished building. The architect is told that she is slow, but she replies that the family can move in by Christmas. She quickly takes her leave and gets into a van filled with men, and we realise that - apart from being an architect - she is also an actor. Or put differently, she has two faces. Another actor is also a chef. Another actor is also a plumber. They all have two faces, so to speak, and the play they are in is also about faces: it is Girish Karnad's Hayavadana. The director, Anand Ekarshi, takes a bit of time to get to the actual play – and this passage (beautifully written, and beautifully edited by Mahesh Bhuvanend) gives us a glimpse of the people involved. Someone says a purse is missing. An actor says he is going to declare his love for the sole female actor in the group, the architect. A selfie is taken. The rows outside fill up with the audience.
The play is well-received and a couple of impressed foreigners invite the group to their posh hotel. By this time, the key players of Aattam (a two-faced title, implying both meanings of 'play') have been identified. Vinay Forrt and Zarin Shihab are lovers, named Vinay and Anjali. They have been with this theatre group for a long time, and yet, the lead role is being played by a newcomer, a small-time film actor named Hari (Kalabhavan Shajohn). This makes Vinay insecure. Hari couldn't care less. And during a night of drunken revelry at the hotel, all hell breaks loose. Later, we learn that there might have been an act of sexual molestation. Many people have a motive, and we find ourselves in the midst of a psychological whodunit. We could also call the film an emotional procedural, a gradual unraveling of the true nature of the people behind the faces they wear in public.
To add to the confusion, Hari (who is now a suspect) brings in the offer to take the play to various foreign countries, like England, Finland, Norway… The prospect is irresistible to these ordinary men with very ordinary jobs. Even the actor whose other face is that of a newspaper editor is tempted. His job sounds powerful, but the power it brings is nothing compared to the power wielded by his wife, who is a high-ranking, whip-cracking government employee. She earns far more than he does, and he practically salivates at the prospect of this European tour. It is possibly the rare time his "hobby" of acting has resulted in something monetarily gainful, as opposed to just artistic satisfaction. Another actor has health issues. He needs those euros. And the question arises: Will they be self-centred and do what is right for them, or will they do what is right by their conscience?
In other words, the drama on stage is nothing compared to the one happening off-stage. Aattam is a chamber play that is deliberately theatrical, and it reminded me of films like 12 Angry Men and some passages from Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's work. But most of all, the director's breathless approach appears to owe a debt to Asghar Farhadi. The escalating cascades of dialogue form the events, and the characters expose themselves through speech. As with Farhadi, each "conversation" becomes a set piece, and we learn new information that takes us to the next conversation, the next set piece, the next confrontation, the next revelation. It helps that the music (by Basil CJ) is minimal. (There are, maybe, three or four stretches in the entire film where we hear a background score.) The dialogue is its own music.
Aattam is a fantastic debut. It probes the grey space between truth and lies. Cinematographer Anirudh Aneesh's floating camera gives the sense of being a jittery observer, and we become invisible participants as the screenplay touches Important Topics like judging a woman who drinks, or gaslighting. (Look out for the part about "tactile hallucination," and the journalist at the beginning who asks the playwright why there is only one woman in his play.) The performances are perfect, and so is the ending. Is the mystery solved? It doesn't matter. The off-stage becomes on-stage. After all the all-too-real drama that rambles all over the place (and inevitably so), the precise and abstract finish becomes the best kind of closure. We see that Art is perhaps the only way to obtain the catharsis – the justice – that real life cannot provide. Real-life verdicts need proof. With art, all you need is anger, talent, and imagination.