“Athiran”… A twisty thriller filled with more red herrings than convincing storytelling

Posted on April 20, 2019


Spoilers ahead…

Fahadh Faasil has been on such a quality run of late — the thought running through his mind as he evaluated scripts appears to have been “Will this movie take Malayalam cinema to the next level?” — that it’s a bit of a relief to see him in a pure genre film like Athiran. Good actors need to do this, occasionally — they need to cut loose, have fun. He plays Dr. MK Nair, who’s been sent to a mental institution. You’re imagining a hospital, right? Wrong! This is a Gothic mansion situated in the middle of nowhere. Early on, when someone says you have to cross two hills to get to it, it doesn’t look like he’s joking. It’s probably easier to get to the moon. Only, the moon doesn’t have labyrinthine passageways, flooded with ghostly green light and populated by the odd black cat. As a lifelong fan of pulp-shlock, I was practically purring with anticipation.

And what characters we meet inside, beginning with the silver-haired chief doctor (Atul Kulkarni)! His name is Benjamin Diaz and he keeps chomping on enormous cigars — a Freudian would say he’s trying to overcompensate for something. Then, we have Renuka (Lena), who manages the property. One look at these two, and you know the lunatics have taken over the asylum — and the patients are even better. There’s a spooky nun-like figure, given to quoting scripture. There’s a woman who’s always smiling — and when she’s not smiling, she’s flashing the audience “I know something you don’t” looks. There’s a man who keeps saying “schadenfreude,” as though auditioning to be in the next Prithviraj thriller set outside the country. There’s a painter who divines the future. On his canvas, you see images of things that are about to happen — like the fact that MK Nair is soon going to be surrounded by snarling dogs.

But the screenplay (by PF Mathews, and set in the 1970s) doesn’t know what to do with these characters. They are all some kind of red herring, and when you think back on the film, directed by Vivek, you realise how little they add to it. It’s the same with the strange, theatrical-sounding lines (“Sheep don’t hunt. They are to be hunted.”) — they seem to mean something, and later, you see they really don’t. Ghibran’s huge score is another red herring, making us anticipate jump scares where there are none. The narrative has no rhythm, and (except for the reveal at the end) the scenes don’t lock into one another to provide a continuous emotional through-line. (At times, we seem to be watching a stuffy costume drama.) Athiran wants to be slick, and that’s not necessarily a bad goal — but it cannot come at the expense of sense.

Take the hypnotherapy scene. MK Nair scoffs at the technique, but Benjamin Diaz soon has him under. Why does he not use these powers to probe into Nair’s intentions, or to prevent Nair from doing things he doesn’t want done – like meeting Nitya (Sai Pallavi), the key to the mystery? She’s another patient here, and at least for me, the film’s sole point of interest. I can’t say if Sai Pallavi portrays her condition accurately, but it’s one of the most interesting, disorienting portrayals of mental illness I have seen. The first time we see her, her face is covered by a curtain of hair — and when it parts, there’s not a trace of makeup. Her fingers and toes stick out at odd angles. She carries herself with exquisite poise, the gracefulness accentuated by her long limbs, her long hair. Instead of “acting” the hell out of the showy part, she allows herself to just inhabit the character. It’s very affecting. She does so much for the film that I wished it had returned the favour.

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