Famous plays have been presented through the medium of cinema, though cinema and theatre are two different art forms. We have witnessed many famous plays presented through the medium of cinema. Vishal Bharadwaj is a sterling example as he has successfully Indianised, somewhat contemporised, three famous works of Shakespeare as films, namely ‘Maqbool (Macbeth)’, ‘Omkara (Othello)’ and ‘Haider (Hamlet)’.

The first film revolving around a theatre group that comes to mind is Ritwik Ghatak’s Komal ‘Gandhar (E-Flat)’ released in 1961. It was part of the trilogy composed of ‘Meghe Dhaka Tara’ (1960), ‘Komal Gandhar’ and ’Subarnarekha’ (1962), all dealing with the aftermath of the Partition in different ways.

‘Komal Gandhar’, the second in the loose Partition trilogy, showcases Ghatak's most uncompromisingly Brechtian commitments, which draw on his own experiences with the Indian People’s Theatre Association. “‘Komal Gandhar’ is influenced by the Jatra (theatre in the round) a rural Bengali theatrical form that Ghatak once described as “kaleidoscopic, pageant-like, relaxed, discursive” Swagato Chakraborty wrote in his article, ‘Out of the Waiting Room of History: Ritwik Ghatak’s Cinema of Partition’ (Los Angeles Review of Books, February 22, 2020.)

‘Aattam (The Play)’ is different. It marks the directorial debut of Anand Ekarshi and is completely distanced from Ghatak’s film. It is set in Kerala in contemporary times and is in Malayalam. Shot mainly indoors, within the precincts of a house used for rehearsals by a theatre group, it lacks the visual beauty one is used to in most films shot in Kerala.

It revolves around the rehearsals, the performance of what appears like a costume drama which has around a dozen actors, all men except one woman whose camaraderie with her colleagues is friendly. Like ‘Komal Gandhar’, the film does not quite focus on any play except towards the end, but on what ensues among the members of the group including the manager Madan (Madan Babu K) and a relatively new entrant, noted film actor Hari, that is expected to push up the popularity of the play.

Hari (Kalabhavan Shajohn), who is a film actor, throws his starry weight about. Hari has also angered Vinay (Vinay Forrt) because he has replaced Vinay as the hero of the play. Vinay, professionally a chef, is on the way to divorcing his wife but is having a torrid affair with Anjali (Zarin Shihab) the sole female in the group and keeps promising marriage to her which, taking his secretive attitude to the affair, appears doubtful.

The members of the theatre group are ordinary men living less-than-ordinary lives. One is an electrician, another a plumber, the third a cook, and so on. This shows that they are not doing theatre so much for money but for passion. The theatre group is small in budget but is popular among theatre fans.

One night, after a performance, the group is invited to an overnight party by themselves by a foreign couple which owns a bungalow in Kochi with food and drinks hosted by the couple. Anjali gets drunk along with the men with whom she shares a happy, comfortable relationship.

She disappears from the bungalow and when Vinay follows her, he learns that in her sleep in the bungalow, someone groped her. Vinay rushes in to report this to Madan, who is sort of manager of the group. Vinay insists that though she was drunk and fast asleep, Anjali could recognise who groped her. An extremely humiliated, hurt and pained Anjali is brainwashed by Vinay to decide that it was indeed Hari. But she is not sure herself.

The meeting among the men, Hari being absent as he had to report for shooting, brainwashed constantly by Vinay, are in two minds whether to throw Hari out of the group or keep him in. Throwing him out entails losing out on a golden opportunity he brings for the entire group of a long foreign tour for performances and a hefty sum of each as fee, with sight-seeing thrown in.

From this point on, the narrative settles on the discussions, debates, arguments among the men caught in the dilemma of whether to sack Hari for his presumed act and whether Anjali had really seen the offender in the pitch dark of night, in her deep sleep after being drunk, or, whether Hari might be wrongly blamed for an offence he did not commit. This also heats up at times and the men get into fisticuffs till Madan tries his best to bring things back in order.

Anjali is fetched from her place by Vinay who keeps pushing her to point out Hari as her abuser till Anjali is fed up. To her deep shock, through her candid statement that she has not seen the abuser enough to identify him, Anjali realises that the men, though pretending to rescue her from the insult, are equally shaky about her accusation being true because she was drunk, was fast asleep and it was in the pitch dark of night. Anjali has no clue about the prospects of a foreign tour being cancelled if Hari is thrown out.

The question is not about a girl being groped. It is about how male colleagues are passive participants in the act because they are ready to pin her accusation with suspicion and Anjali feels groped again and again for being asked repeatedly about how and whether she saw the accused or not.

When she walks out of the group for good, angry, hurt and doubly humiliated, she does not care about the identity of her groper because she labels all the men in her group as biased against women, and specially Anjali, their talented colleague who is the only female actor among a crowd of men and the group cannot imagine a performance without her.

She accuses them of not believing her because they constantly attack her with questions while Vinay tries to ward them off because he has a personal axe to grind as throwing Hari out will gain him entry as the hero again.

She bursts out at the all-male group, asking why she is being asked so many questions when she is the victim of a wronging male and walks out in anger. The best point of the film is that we never get to know who groped her. Does she know it herself? Isn’t the fact that she was groped by one of the men in the group enough to drive home the politics of power imbalance that sustains in our society between man and woman?

‘Aattam’ is the strongest feminist statement in a film directed by a man in a long time and also, Anand Ekarshi is not only a man but this is also his directorial debut.

Is there any difference between groping a woman, molesting her and raping her? Each one of these is an act of touching a woman’s body without her consent. Yet, society so easily counters such complaints with suspicion instead of taking her word for it.

Any physical or verbal assault on any woman, be it touching inappropriately, groping, molesting, raping against her express wishes is a means by which she is politically manipulated to harbour and nourish feelings of guilt, fear, distrust, anger and frustration.

The setting remains simple, located inside a two-storied house where Anjali shares her bedroom with the wife and child of one of her male colleagues. The drunken party which tends to get wild towards the end, is picturised and orchestrated quite naturally, given the surprise gift the group gets from the foreign couple for a night’s stay in their bungalow.

Despite its powerful subject, Ekarshi keeps it understated, spilling over with quite mundane dialogue and keeping away from either sentiment or sensation. It takes time for the viewer to grasp what the film is exactly wanting to say but when we grasp it, we are shocked by the brutality of the experience and the way in which this is portrayed, especially the twist in the climax.

The actual performance of one play in the beginning and a different one marking the end are used as a very ingenuous and aesthetic framing device. The acting by every single actor is brilliant.

In all rulings on cases of eve-teasing, stalking, groping, molesting and raping, people conveniently forget that these acts bear a direct relation to all power structures in a given society. This relationship is not a simple, mechanical one but involves complex structures reflecting the interconnectedness of gender, caste and class oppression that characterize society.

Anjali is an exception. She not only walks out, her face crumpled but her back straight, and throws up the right answer in the magical climax of the film. Zarin Shihab as Anjali wins the show hands down sans make-up, sans revealing costumes, or any glamorous chutzpah. The varied expressions of pain, shock, disbelief, hurt and insult are beautifully registered in a very low-key but electric performance.

‘Aattam’ won the 2023 Grand Jury Award at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles. It was also chosen as the opening feature film at the 54th International Film Festival of India held at Goa. The film was produced by Dr. Ajith Joy under the banner of Joy Movie Productions. A not-to-be-missed film.