NYIFF 2013 Review: AATMA Gives Even Its Villains A Little Bit Of Soul

J Hurtado, Contributing Writer
Suparn Verma's latest film, Aatma, is one that's been on my radar for quite some time. I was more than a little bit disappointed when it didn't open stateside as expected, but I'm happy to see it get its moment in the sun as a midnight movie for the New York Indian Film Festival. 

The film is something we don't see nearly enough from Bollywood, which is straight ahead horror. This isn't a slasher or anything over the top gruesome like the torture porn we're so used to seeing here, Aatma is, instead, a supernatural thriller more along the lines of the old school ghost stories that no one really makes anymore.

Abhay (acclaimed Indian character actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a man on the edge. He loves his family dearly, but when he loses his job, he becomes focused, nay, obsessed with his daughter Nia, to the point that he ignores and often chastises his wife, Maya (Bipasha Basu) for the smallest perceived transgressions. When his criticism turns violent, Maya kicks him out and he ends up dead, we don't know how or why until very late in the film. 

However, his love for his daughter, or rather his obsession with claiming control over her affection, doesn't go so easily and his soul (the titular Aatma) returns in an attempt to get Nia to crossover to the underworld, obviously against Maya's wishes. The resulting struggle leaves several people dead and everyone very confused, but not for long, as the story unfolds it all becomes crystal clear.

In my discussions with director Verma, it has become clear that while he is has been raised on Indian cinema that his worldview is much broader than that. His goal here wasn't to create a Bollywood horror film, his only goal was to create a good horror film. As a result, the film is not what Indian audiences expected, which led to wildly varying critical opinions of the film. Many said it was too slow, or that not enough happens, but these are the voices of critics who have become accustomed to the balls out, kitchen sink style of filmmaking that is so richly rewarded at the box office in India. Aatma, while not exactly a subtle film, is nonetheless very focused on its story without too many diversions from the plot, which may play poorly for Indian critics.

The film moves from incredibly violent and gory moments to tenderness with relative ease. Abhay's love for his daughter, while perhaps misplaced, is palpable, which is what makes the film just complex enough to engage the audience in an unexpected way. We are so used to seeing ghosts and spirits and purely malevolent beings, whereas Abhay's presence is more often than not a soothing one to Nia. Often it appears as though it is Maya whose histrionics are misplaced, but then the film snaps back into focus by realigning the viewer's POV with her's in the real world and we are reminded that Abhay is more or less trying to kill his daughter so that she can join him in the afterlife.

Aatma isn't without its faults, no film is. There are a few FX gags that stretch the bounds of credulity, but I think that has more to do with the boundaries of Indian FX studios than the film itself, a complaint I've made mention of more than once. Also, I do wish there was more of Nawaz in the film, he often appears only in voiceover, and I love seeing him on screen as his presence lends an invaluable weight to the goings on. Presumably he was in the middle of shooting a dozen other films while making this one, though, so getting a full schedule out of him must be an incredible challenge. 

Overall, though, the film succeeds in its aim to both creep out and at times just downright scare its audience's pants off, and you can't ask for much more than that.
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