It would take a man, who must have been part of locker room kind of conversations about women, to make a film like Aattam (The Play), Anand Ekarshi’s Malayalam film that has been winning awards and accolades (it opened the Indian Panorama action for the recently concluded IFFI in Goa), for its unsparing look at hypocrisy in Indian society. He focuses on the male point of view, but had he included a few women too, the outcome would probably have been the same. Women are capable of judging other women more harshly, because the default mode for so many is to conform.
Anjali (Zarin Shihab), an architect by profession, is part of an amateur theatre group, called Arangu (stage). It is strange, but she is the only female in a troupe of men, belonging to vastly different ages and social backgrounds — a former newspaper editor, film star, plumber, driver, petrol pump attendant, temple priest, chef and so on. For Indian society, this is remarkably caste-class free and democratic. Whatever it may look like to people from the outside, Anjali feels safe and uninhibited in the group. Ekarshi must also want to say education and social status has little to do with a man’s mindset.
After a successful show of Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana, the troupe is invited for an evening of celebration by friends of the up-and-coming movie star Hari (Kalabhavan Shajohn), a foreign couple who run a resort. Cars are loaded with booze and food, and everybody gets tipsy, including Anjali. Here the filmmaker cleverly inserts some ‘friendly’ comments from the men about her capacity for alcohol, as she flits about among the group. Without realising or recognising it as such, they disapprove of Anjali’s lifestyle and style of dressing. Many in the audience have also probably decided already that Anjali is ‘loose’, more so since she is having a secret affair with a married fellow actor, Vinay (Vinay Forrt). She rebuffs another group member’s proposal, not very politely.
After the party, Anjali goes to the room she is sharing with the wife and daughter of a troupe member, and sleeps on a couch by the window. The occurrence that kicks off the drama — and also turns the plot into a kind of whodunit — is not seen, but heard on a Bluetooth device carelessly left on. Anjali does not want to make a fuss, and confides only in Vinay that she was groped; she is traumatised, but has no thoughts of going to the police or taking legal action. But Vinay, in that proprietary way of men — how dare someone touch my woman! — goes to senior group member, Madan (Madan Babu), and demands some action be taken against the culprit.
Vinay goads Madan into calling all the group members, excluding the suspect, to decide what is to be done. Vinay does not admit it to the others, but he has an axe to grind with the professional rival. They all gather in Madan’s well-appointed living room, around his large dining table. The reactions of the men are typical — outrage, anger, disgust, suspicion (did she see the man?) and worry that if the scandal is exposed, their successful production will shut down, and the group possibly broken up. (Even in this band of brothers mode, a few of them, out of earshot, make snide remarks about Madan living off his wife’s money.)
The agitated Vinay has got Madan totally on his side, and turns the tide of opinion in such a way that the others are persuaded into expelling the offender from the group — they all sign a letter to the director of the play, making this demand. As it usually happens, even the reluctant ones are forced to comply, because they do not want to stand against the majority. United in their righteousness, they do not think of asking Anjali what course of action she would want to follow. It is not until much later that they even send for Anjali to appear before their impromptu kangaroo court and by this time, a new development has considerably reduced their fury. Now they do not see her as a victim, but as an obstacle. When self-interest enters the scene, justice flies out of the window.
Anjali is disturbed because that circle of safety and trust that she found in the theatre group has been shattered forever. Even if she continues to act in the production, the incident will always haunt her. But the play needs their leading lady, so the term “tactile hallucination” is introduced to weaken the validity of her experience.
Aattam has the tension of Reginald Rose’s classic 12 Angry Men and the bitter misogyny of Vijay Tendulkar’s Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe, in which a schoolteacher, who is part of a drama troupe, is put into a witness box and questioned about her morality. A mock trial transforms the team into a lynch mob, with Miss Benare as their hapless prey.
Anjali is asked at some point why she was sleeping by the open window. The incident is set aside to find ways to discredit Anjali — like the lies told by Vinay and endorsed by the well-meaning Madan, which she had nothing to do with, the exposure of her affair, which is in no way linked to what happened at the resort. After society is done with judging a woman — why is she making a fuss about a minor incident, or why did she take so long to complain — she is forced to regret ever speaking out.
It would be naive to assume that women are always innocent, but the the film reflects what happens so often in society — even when the woman is the one who is wronged, she has to be answerable for what she was wearing, who she was with, why she was out at night, whether she was drinking, if she in any way provoked the attack on her dignity, whether she had some ulterior motive, if her word can be trusted… in short, is she virtuous in the way society expects a good woman to be? If she is not, then she should just shut up and allow herself to be judged!
Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author.