Athiran movie review: Fahadh Faasil and Sai Pallavi have chosen unwisely
Considering the expectations raised by the stellar credits, Athiran's ordinariness is a big disappointment
castFahadh Faasil, Sai Pallavi, Atul Kulkarni, Leena, Surabhi Lakshmi, Sudev Nair, Leona Lishoy, Renji Panicker, Shanthi Krishna, Prakash Raj
So Fahadh Faasil is human after all. Anyone thinking that New Malayalam Cinema's poster boy could do no wrong after his dream run with the back-to-back arrival of Varathan, Njan Prakashan and Kumbalangi Nights in theatres in recent months is likely to be given pause by Athiran. Writer-director Vivek's film does have a promising premise, but it struggles to stay afloat in the writing of the screenplay, the direction and even some of the acting. It coulda been a contender, as On The Waterfront's Terry Malloy might have said, but what it ends up being instead is tepid fare.
Athiran opens with an eerie scene in which a character played by Shanthi Krishna sees a bunch of unexplained bodies lying around her house. Fast forward to a few years later, and Fahadh Faasil's character is headed to a home for the mentally ill in the Kerala countryside where he introduces himself as Dr MK Nair to the doctor-in-charge, Dr Benjamin Diaz (Atul Kulkarni). Nair reveals that he has been sent by medical authorities in Thiruvananthapuram to check on what are suspected to be questionable practices by Diaz.
We gradually meet the inmates at the centre: a girl who dresses in a nun's habit (Leona Lishoy), a dashing and loquacious young fellow (Sudev Nair), an oddly protective lady (Surabhi Lakshmi), an elderly professor who speaks repeatedly of schadenfreude (Vijay Menon), and others.
Dr Diaz and his suspicious Woman Friday, Renuka (played by Leena), resist Nair every step of the way, but soon he comes face to face with their most closely guarded patient: Nithya (Sai Pallavi). She is the present-day link to the dead people shown in the opening.
The best part of Athiran comes towards the beginning when Nair is on the road to Diaz's place. Director of Photography Anu Moothedath's camera wanders unfettered across the thickly green landscape, pulling up up and away to give us extreme high angle aerial shots, returning quietly to take a closer look at the ground, staying with Dr Nair and his fellow travellers as we listen to their chatter for a bit, wandering silently among and over trees, zooming out again and then coming back. Quite remarkably, it does all this without moving in a dizzying fashion, instead pacing itself slowly and giving those scenes a watchful air. The natural splendour of the region is inescapable as is the grandeur of the British colonial-era mansion from which Dr Diaz operates, but the overriding impression is of a land and a residence holding secrets that must be feared.
At first, Vivek's collaboration with Moothedath and background score composer Ghibran succeeds in creating a sense of foreboding. But as time passes, the camera gets somewhat manipulative in a clichéd fashion (such as with that shot of just one of Fahadh Faasil's eyes), and combined with an increasingly insistent score, starts chipping away at the ominous atmosphere rather than exacerbating it.
Considering the megaton wattage of the names in the credits, the acting is, surprisingly, a mixed bag. On the one hand there is Fahadh Faasil's very intelligent performance, with some of its confusing aspects making absolute sense once the big reveal comes around in the end. On the other hand there is the usually dependable and remarkable Atul Kulkarni who over-acts throughout Athiran.
Sai Pallavi can perhaps be partly excused for her inconsistent performance, because her Nithya is meant to be autistic but Vivek (who wrote the story) and his co-writer PF Mathews (who did the screenplay and dialogues) don't seem to have a well-rounded understanding of this developmental disorder, which is used in Athiran as nothing more than a tool to intimidate and confuse audiences. That said, actors have a responsibility to do their own research too, and the sharpness of Nithya's gaze in the action scenes suggests insufficient homework done for this role. After having left a lasting impression as Malar Miss from Premam and the terrified Anjali from Kali, the solitary plus for this charismatic young Tamil-Telugu-Malayalam actor here is that Athiran shows her desire to experiment.
With the film floundering on the writing front right from the start, it is no surprise that other elements end up being shaky. Vivek probably had a good idea to begin with, but he and Mathews seem torn between wanting to make a paranormal thriller or a crime saga woven around a portrait of mental health. To throw us off their scent, they keep implying that the film is one or the other, but in the end, once the final twist is done and dusted, there are too many loose ends, red herrings and unconvincing motivations left hanging that the team seems not to have known how to tie up. Just think, for instance, of the painter who can see into the future among the patients at Dr Diaz's home for the mentally ill.
In fact, after their introductory scenes, Nithya's fellow patients are given nothing to remember them by beyond the defining quirk assigned to each one. Even the insertion of Kalari into the plot feels superfluous, an attempt perhaps to either divert attention from and/or provide an indigenous touch to the very obvious Hollywood source for the plot.
Besides, the narrative goes slack after a while. The musical interludes do not help at all, most especially that passage featuring a song in which a crucial character is shown romancing another in conventional commercial Indian cinema style.
It is hard to believe that Mathews was the writer of Ee.Ma.Yau, director Lijo Jose Pellissery's incredibly beautiful funeral film released last year. The story of Athiran maybe Vivek's, but the screenplay after all is Mathews'. Considering the expectations raised by the stellar credits, Athiran's ordinariness is a big disappointment.
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