The place is beautiful, as most remote places seem to be. A truck rides through a long green stretch, and you watch the camera zoom out to show the place to you, moments after the eerie picture the movie began with. Shanti Krishna had walked panicking into a large house, big wooden blocks in front of it giving you the year – 1967 – nice bit of art direction and more of it will come later. The music is scary so you know something bad has happened there, and you watch Shanti jolt back four times, finding four dead people in various parts of the house. In the last room, she finds someone playing with a strip of wool, packs a suitcase and leaves the house.
Athiran begins with all the necessary elements of a scary thriller – Ghibran’s background music comes with perfect timing, the camera jumps in and out of faces (courtesy Anu Moothedath), and there is the suspense of a whodunit that would last till the end. The movie does the job of holding your interest pretty well, but somewhere it lacks a certain quality in taking the nice little plot to the screen. But then debutant director Vivek shows promise, especially since he could handle a script written by PF Mathews, a master weaver of dark stories.
A mental health centre somewhere in the middle of an unnamed beautiful place is where nearly the entire movie happens. Fahadh Faasil comes to this place, as an outsider. Sai Pallavi, her face hidden by long strands of hair, is somewhere inside.
When the opening credits begin, five years have passed since the killings, and we see that truck roll through, the driver chatting non-stop to the cap-covered face of a man riding with him. Fahadh’s voice comes first before he makes a stylish entry, wearing a long Englishman’s coat and cap, and carrying a suitcase. He introduces himself as Dr Kannan Nair who has come from Thiruvananthapuram Medical College to check the institute and make a report. The caretaker Renuka (Lena) panics. The helper Avirachan (Nandhu) panics. The head doctor from Goa, Dr Benjamin (Atul Kulkarni), is unhappy.
The first exchange between the two men looks and sounds very theatrical. They are on stage, it would seem, dressed as these strange characters, speaking their strange lines. Fahadh pulls out of the drama setting, speaking a natural Malayalam (of course, it is Fahadh) even as Dr Benjamin’s English lines sound unreal. Fahadh questions Dr Benjamin’s unadvisable methods of hypnotherapy on his patients. The doctor justifies it, says it helps erase bad pasts of people.
The theatrical setting extends to the costumes – Renuka for some reason wears frocks, and this is in the year 1972. It is alright for the rest of the characters – five of them are mentally ill – Surabhi playing an older woman who advises everyone to speak only to her if there are any problems, Sudev Nair plays Jeevan who appears playful, Vijay Menon is a professor looking for the meaning of the word schadenfreude (no, he has not been listening to Shashi Tharoor), Leona Lishoy who wears the robes of a nun and makes scary Biblical references, and finally, an old artist who can paint the future.
Sai Pallavi is the sixth inmate, but she is not a patient. She is autistic, and with very little lines to speak – a few words barely – plays Nithya Lekshmi adorably well. There are no exaggerated moves or expressions, just the indifference of someone distracted to another world. But she can turn scary with her long strands of hair covering her face, her unexpected movements and screams.
It is a scary thriller, of course. And Vivek never lets you forget that and relax. There’s always something to be wary about – someone or something may attack Kannan, the dangerous paths that this doctor insists on taking every night, making you wish he’d just lie down in his room and sleep like a normal person. All that adds to the thrills the movie is expected to produce. It is just putting them all together that did not work too well. The edits are odd, the songs come out of nowhere (PS Jayahari’s music is not to be blamed here), and the theatrical setting stands out unnaturally.
But Vivek, of course, had quite a few talents to work with – Fahadh with his easily adapting ways, Sai Pallavi who can be charming even as a violent young woman without makeup and doing Kalaripayattu, Renji Panicker who had no trouble turning into a physically fit Kalari master at his age (the actor appears in flashbacks that would be spoilers if mentioned), one of the most natural actors Nandhu, and flexible Lena.
If Vivek had worked around a little, toned down the theatrics, got the bunch of really interesting characters into a more natural setting and merged the songs better, Athiran would have been more enjoyable.