Sunday, March 24, 2013

Exit, pursued by a bear (a grizzly TV set and other horrors in Aatma)

The new film Aatma knows something the cinema of horror has known for decades now – that there is nothing quite as terrifying as a sweet little girl, especially a sweet little girl who looks into your eyes and chirrups “I love you, mama.” Aatma, subtitled “Feel it Around You” (displayed on the neon ticker outside the hall as “Feel Around You”), begins with a sequence where we see just such a girl, Nia, watching a home video on a fancy plasma TV screen that appears to be.... nestled inside the belly of what is either a giant panda or a polar bear with a zebra gene.

It is a heart-stopping moment and yet, astonishingly, it turns out that this is not what we are meant to find scary! The panda is mere interior decoration in a child’s nursery, unremarked on and never held up for judgement or scrutiny. The film doesn’t ask us to consider the effect that this creepy ursine wall-adornment (along with what look like a number of Angry Bird soft toys on a giant bed) might have on the girl’s mental state. Instead, the intended object of terror is harmless little Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who plays the ghost of Nia’s over-possessive father and looks only as menacing as he did in his early scenes as the drug-wasted Faisal, timidly asking for “permission” in Gangs of Wasseypur.

As the deceased but still angry Abhay, Nawazuddin gives the best performance in this film (which is saying very little), but I maintain that the real source of the chills is the girl – not in the scenes where she is possessed (those are just funny) but in the ones where she is being a normal privileged child doing the things normal privileged children these days do with their fake pink cellphones and their furry TV sets.

Okay, seriously: being a big fan of the genre and defensive about the snobbery that comes its way, I really wanted to like Aatma. And this is a good-looking film in many ways, with some interesting – if derivative – things happening at the level of camerawork and framing: a showy tracking shot early on plays like a tribute to Kubrick’s The Shining as well as some of De Palma’s great 70s work; there is a long, self-consciously stationary shot in a judge’s chamber where Abhay is denied custody of his child (and Nawazuddin gets to Act with a capital A). But given the minor flair for psychological tension that the film shows in its initial scenes, I wish it had held back for a while before moving into the realm of the explicitly supernatural. Perhaps it could have kept us guessing for a bit longer, allowed us to wonder if Nia’s mother Maya (Bipasha Basu) is to be trusted, whether Abhay really is dead (and then again, whether he really is undead), or if the kid and her mom have serious emotional issues and are imagining things. But the ghostly stuff kicks in too fast, putting paid to any larger-narrative suspense.

A predictable story arc follows, as the people who offer help or support to Maya are bumped off one by one. This is not in itself problematic, but what could have been fine setpieces are irritatingly listless in their execution, and most of the characters are underwritten and barely performed at all. Consider Nia’s class-teacher, who merely looks a little put out during a spelling session when the little girl spells out words that haven’t even been enunciated yet. Later, working alone in the school, the teacher sees a recently deceased boy walking the corridors, and her ludicrous reaction is to call out “Paras! Paras!” in a flat voice as she follows him around.

Tilottama Shome, who plays this thankless part, is capable of better things, which is a reminder that dialogue-writers and actors working in horror films are often content to be foot-soldiers to the paisa-vasool moments – the ones that they know will (if handled with even minimum competence) make viewers bolt up in their seats or splay their fingers across their eyes. Thus, while Aatma has a couple of obligatory scary moments, it has many more slack “dramatic” scenes where indifferent writing meets (or facilitates) indifferent acting. “Nia, papa se baat kar rahe ho?” Maya asks in an expressionless tone when she sees her daughter talking to her ghost-dad on her pink toy phone. “Aur kya kaha papa ne?” She seems equally impassive after the grisly murder of her child’s psychiatrist (while he was sitting in his office with little Nia) and even manages a rueful little smile (or maybe that’s just the natural curve of Bipasha’s mouth) when she speaks with her colleague shortly after the body has been discovered.

And so it goes. There are purifying havans and jaadu-tona and amulets intended to ward off evil. There are unintentionally funny shots such as the one of the ghost plaintively looking up at the balcony with his arms spread out, after Maya has thwarted one of his attempts to have his daughter join him in the after-life. (Nawazuddin here looks a bit like a sad farmer hoping for rain.) There is not the slightest attempt at making the past history of Maya and Abhay credible, or fleshing out the family’s inner dynamics, or explaining how Abhay managed to simultaneously be so savage towards his wife and so tender towards his daughter.

And maybe I’m becoming bleeding-heart socialist in my old age, but I can invest only so much emotion in the misfortunes of beautiful rich people who react to a loved one’s savage murder with mildly worried expressions (as if the new Koala Bear-TV has malfunctioned and eaten the new Gucci handbag). At least Nawazuddin looks and sounds somewhat like a human being capable of real emotion (even if that emotion is wife-beating rage). It’s another matter that he also looks like a boy from Wasseypur suddenly teleported to Malabar Hill. As a police officer played by Jaideep Ahlawat – who was also in Wasseypur and looks like he preferred it there – says, “I have a bad feeling about this.”

Speaking of Wasseypur and Malabar Hill, in theory at least it is interesting that the film’s two main male figures are rustic types who speak coarsely and seem out of place in this luxurious setting, while the women are self-sufficient, chic and upper-class. If Aatma had been a better-written film, it might have done intriguing things with this men-as-primitive-women-as-modern subtext. It might, for instance, have been a comment on conservative men who feel threatened by confident, working women (Abhay flies into a temper when he suspects Maya has been talking on the phone with her male colleague; the police officer has a nightmare where he sees Maya and her daughter at the edge of his bed, looking back at him menacingly, perhaps implying that he sees them, rather than the father, as the problem). But the implications of this aren’t explored, and what could have been a subtle exploration of the man-woman relationship within the changing contexts of marriage, parenthood and modernity – while also being a very good horror film – ends up being neither.

P.S. (Spoiler Alert) It seems a little unfair that even after dying you have to dig your way out of a pit while other ghosts stand around cackling at you. But at the film’s end Maya heroically overcomes this inconvenience and shows up in time to beat the crap out of Abhay and save their daughter. What she saves her for is questionable though: make what you will of the final scene, in which an 18-year-old Nia, surrounded by zombie-like friends and whatever surviving family members there are, celebrates her birthday in the same mansion while the spirit of her mother watches fondly from a distance (and the television-bear growls “Who’s been sleeping in my bed?”).

*** The Fellini short “Toby Dammit” is just one of many movies that cast little girls as Satan. More on that here


  1. That was a good read Jai... better than what Rajeev Masand had to say. :)

  2. Scar Zeroed: I'll assume you meant that as a compliment, so thanks!

  3. The premise was so great-I was going to watch it-but it seems it doesn't include anything I would watch it for.horror isn't about revenge, it's about the overturning of the natural order and conservative values. if it doesn't explore the wife imagining things post abuse scenario, the director's wasted an opportunity, that's in Bhoot, if the couple's love was shown as a facade, the ghost as a manifestation of the wife's anxiety against her controlling/abusive husband, it would be more interesting, no?

  4. Jai, interesting read. Achcha, have you also written about 13B film?

  5. Mihir: no, haven't seen it. Any good?

    Sukhmani: well, what I'm more concerned with is the poor quality of the execution - not the premise, or what horror should or shouldn't be about. But it's true that the film started off looking like it would do something a bit more complex than it actually did, and that made it a letdown.

  6. Yes. It also casts TV in a very important role.

  7. The highpoint of 13B -
    Doctor: What is the most complicated supercomputer in this world?
    Afflicted hero and wife/family mumble, fail and look expectantly.
    Doctor: The human brain!
    The rest of them look in badly guarded bewilderment.
    Doctor: So, if ghosts can take over the human brain, why not TV?