All of us - men and women, husband and wives, adults and children, have to live with our fears. Sometimes we have to die with them. That's where trouble starts in Suparn Verma's smartly-written, nimbly-executed shiver-giver which, blessedly, doesn't lapse into a gore fest... At least not until the last few reels when the body count begins to pile up faster than we can say, "Aatma (2013)".
By the end of this short-and-slick and 'eerie'-isistible horror drama, I did begin to get the feeling that the script, which had so far moved at a symmetrical even and smooth pace, kills too many people. Life is short. Shorter if you have a dead spouse determined to wrangle your only child's security by legal or other-worldly means.
Early on we see Nawazuddin as Bipasha Basu's brutal husband twisting her arm, hurling her to the floor, hurting and wounding her pride and her body. Domestic violence is a serious crime. It can get nasty and ugly on screen when put into the wrong directorial hands. Director Verma doesn't succumb to sleaze. He creates an inner-belly of monstrous disturbances underneath the smooth normal face.
At the top, the movie displays polished surfaces smiling, benignly into our faces. The director makes telling use of suburban spaces. The marble floors and the freshly-painted walls, the imported kitchen appliances, eye-catching furniture and the luminous lighting, all seem to suggest that life is beautiful.
The fissures and aberrations make themselves apparent through the fabric of normalcy until we are left gawking at the gaping wounds that fester under the smooth surface.
At heart, "Aatma (2013)" is a custody battle for a child, a "Kramer vs. Kramer", where one of the parents is dead. Imagine if Meryl Streep was dead and she wanted to take her son away from Dustin Hoffman. Nawazuddin makes a scary Streep.
Verma shoots the chilling premise with minimum ostentation. Ironically the husband, as played by the stark and startling Nawazuddin, is frighteningly demoniacal even when shown alive. In a scene that progresses effortlessly from the ordinary to the ominous Nawazuddin after losing custody battle in the judge's chamber, threatens the judge and thumbs his nose at any law that separates him from his daughter. Here, and anywhere else, living or dead, Nawazuddin's omnipresence is a terrifying prospect.
Verma makes austere use of terror tactics. Mirror images that don't match up with the people and landscape outside the mirror, a ball rolling down an empty school corridor, and in the frightening finale, Nawazuddin leading his daughter by her hand down a railway track, Verma's images are vivid and spine-tingling. He uses space to convey distances that stretch into hearts filled with emptiness.
Tragically, the terror runs out of steam mid-way and the end-game doesn't have the edge-of-the-seat scream-stifling impact that the rest of the film leads us to expect. Nonetheless, Aatma is one of the scariest films in recent times because it doesn't try to be scary. The chills come from the normal gleaming surfaces. Suparn Verma keeps the proceedings quiet, subdued and uniformly ominous. He gets able support from his editor Hemal Kothari, who gives a tightly-wound but nonetheless baggy and freewheeling feel to the footage, and from the cinematographer Sophie Winquvist, who makes Bipasha and her world look pretty, though not in a picture-postcard way.
"Aatma" features some talented actors in the cast. Shernaz Patel and Jaideeep Ahlawat get into their characters' skin without doing anything here that takes their reputation forward. The show belongs to Bipasha all the way.
After "Raaz", she once again carries the scare-fest on her shapely shoulders, feeling every minute of the single mother's terror and horror as her sadistic husband's malevolent soul takes over her life.
Bipasha seems to get better with every film.