The intriguing premise and the evocative texture of Aatma are somewhat at odds with what the film eventually adds up to. One is tempted to look for layers of meaning beneath the images. There is none. You are left clutching at thin air.
A skeletal plot and the scarcity of truly chilling moments defeat the very purpose of the paranormal thriller about a sweet little girl possessed.
As a result, Aatma is not quite as mind-bending or as terrifying as writer-director Suparn Verma wants it to be. Its spirit is in fine shape, what is missing is soul.
There is a juncture or two in the film where it is quite evident that writer-director Suparn Verma is mindful of the limitations the genre is heir to and is determined to rise above them. Unfortunately, intent is all there is to the film. The end result is patchy.
Is Aatma a bit of a feminist film about a tough working woman who decides that she has had enough of being at the receiving end of a vilely abusive husband susceptible to bouts of brutal rage?
Or is it a story of three generations of a family – a mother, a daughter and a grand-daughter – caught in a life-and-death tussle with a force of destruction that simply won’t let go?
The film does have elements of both of the above, but is eventually just another horror flick that tries very hard to break free from the established conventions of the genre. It is doomed to mundane monotony.
A single mother’s fierce battle to save her six-year-daughter from the malevolent grasp of a dead dad has undeniable emotional appeal.
But the vicious visitations from the nether world turn predictable after the first few times, and the tale loses its way in dense mumbo-jumbo that makes little sense.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” the investigating police officer says after inspecting the scene of a murder committed in the little girl’s school by an invisible apparition. One couldn’t agree more.
Many more unexplained deaths occur and the “bad feeling” spreads quickly through this 95-minute film.
Aatma hinges primarily on the dire pronouncement of an urban exorcist. The tormentor, he intones ominously, is no longer a part of the here and now, so he can be stopped only by the dead.
Thanks to Nordic director of photography Sophie Winqvist’s energetic camerawork and mood-inducing lighting, Aatma wears a unique look and feel.
The ghostly air is accentuated by the quick changes in the camera’s focus that at once draw the viewers into the action as well as put them at a clear remove, often within the span of a single sequence.
Winqvist’s camera is a fidgety presence – sometimes it rests at ground level, sometimes at the level of the eye. It frequently perches itself at a dizzying height to provide top-angle shots, at others it adopts a skewed perspective of the scene.
Unfortunately, the devices that the director employs to boost the film’s fear factor – movements in the shadows, unexplained reflections in the mirror, a rocking chair that seems to have a mind of its own, a tennis ball that bounces of its own volition, telephones that go on wild ringing sprees, and the ubiquitous rains and thunder-claps – fail to deliver the desired effect.
As the traumatised mother teetering on the edge of insanity, Bipasha Basu puts her genre experience to rather good use in Aatma, but to what end?
Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the aatma referred to in the film’s title, remains as insubstantial as the character he is saddled with.
However, in the only scene in which he is allowed to be anything other than a reprehensible monster – it takes place in the marriage court that grants his wife divorce as well as custody of their only daughter and he is flummoxed into a twitchy protest – Nawazuddin is outstanding.
Debutante child star Doyel Dhawan has an innocent, wide-eyed quality that cannot be missed.
The supporting actors – Shernaz Patel, Tilottama Shome, Jaideep Ahlawat, Darshan Jariwala, et al – are all competent performers but they can only be as good as the screenplay allows them to be.
Aatma is meant to send shivers down the spine and shock the viewers out of their seats. All it does manage to do is set off a few mild waves of cold bemusement.
Verdict: one star for gumption, one more for effort, but none at all for the rest.