[For the next week and half, we will be covering the 2012 South Asian International Film Festival, the biggest film premiere destination for South Asian and Indian films in the United States. Check back with Flixist for reviews of the SAIFF slate. You can read all of our SAIFF coverage here.]
If I'm remembering right, the phrase "the ambiguities" is antiquated slang for psychosis. It makes sense. One's unable to differentiate between the real and the imaginary, so there's kind of loose play between reality and bizarre fantasies.
Ambiguity is key in Akam (Palas in Bloom). There's a slippage in the mind communicated in the film's introductory shot. We're looking through the eyes of Srinivas (Fahadh Faasil). We're on a beach and retracing footsteps in the sand. The prints are stepped into carefully at first, but then Srinivas's feet miss the mold of the existing prints. Memory, time, and reality are off in Akam, and it took me a while to get my bearings. In some ways, the film captures the point of view of a fractured mind processing the world, or perhaps the mind under the influence of some mythic, vampiric temptress.
I'm still not sure if that's a good thing.
Akam (Palas in Bloom)
Akam is based on the novel Yakshi by Malayattoor Ramakrishnan. After the opening shot and a flash of the title, we see that Srinivas is horribly disfigured along half of his face. Picture a mix of mulberry birthmark, keloid scars, and grape bubblegum. He limps on the same side of his ruined face. The film flashes back from the beach and shows the car accident that left Srinivas deformed. At the time, he was dating a co-worker named Tara who was in the car during the accident.
When we hop out of this flashback and return to the beach, director Shalini Usha Nair introduces a moment of vertigo in the form of a spiraling stairwell and an ascent to the top of a lighthouse. Waiting at the top is a woman in black. The imagery is the stuff of dreams (or at least the film equivalent of dreams). When the narrative reorients itself, Srinivas is in bed with his new wife, Ragini (Anumol K). She loves him despite his disfigurement. It looks like real love and real acceptance after enduring such hardship.
The marriage and the identity of this woman wasn't immediately apparent to me, though. Time hops around at the beginning, so we see some of Ragini's courtship with Srinivas, or at least I think that's the case. We also don't really find out what happened to Tara for a good portion of the film, so there's this odd sense of being unanchored from the plot. I drifted along with the film until I finally found some solid ground, but it took some time. I'm not sure if this was intentional or not, but I felt so thrown, which made the eventual certainties in the film seem welcome.
There's one thing that Srinivas feels absolutely sure about: his wife Ragini is really a demon known as a yakshi, a kind of vampire who appears in the form of a voluptuous temptress. He's also sure that she wants him dead. The only way to kill a yakshi, we're told, is to drive a nail through her head.
Akam sort of explores the roots of this psychosis, or it might be the roots of this supernatural threat. One of Srinivas's co-workers suggests his paranoia might be the result of PTSD after the accident. PTSD would also explain the odd chronological lapses in the film. Srinivas doesn't seem to register how much time has passed, and the audience similarly remains unmoored. The co-worker also suggests that sexual frustration may be the cause of these psychotic episodes. It's a strange observation but also telling. Ragini loves Srinivas and thinks he's handsome despite his facial scars, and yet it seems like they've never consummated their marriage. Much later in the film, when Srinivas is overcome by a major bout of depression, he tries to relieve some of that sexual tension in an unsavory way.
There's a lot of suspicion about Ragini, as if she has no past or any kind of history as a reference point for her identity. For some reason, Srinivas knows very little about her. It made me wonder why it never came up while they were dating. Since so much of the film is filtered through Srinivas's POV, some of this information could be intentionally concealed, like a kind of forgetting. We're not quite sure if these are just delusions or if there's any truth to them. Those images of spiral stairwells appear on the walls in Srinivas's house as decoration, and one of his dreams winds up having repercussions in the real world. Coincidence or craziness, they guy's just hedging his bets.
Yet even though so much of Akam is built on the way suspicion and paranoia are based in ambiguities, the approach left me at a distance. The point of view isn't like an unreliable narrator (someone consciously misleading the reader or consciously withholding information) but more of an uncertain narrative mind. Information is being received, but I never sensed Srinivas's thought process. That distinction might be a little vague, but I think it's an important one. Maybe that's where a little extra nudging in a direction is necessary for me to feel close to a story. For instance, if the film steered in the direction of a PTSD character study, it might have the depth of feeling or unique human observation to move me at the gut level. Or if this veered toward a character study of schizophrenia, it's emotional stakes and personal stakes might have engaged me like, say, Take Shelter even though I couldn't fully latch into that movie.
Thinking of Take Shelter, we always get a sense of the potential danger Michael Shannon's character feels from his apocalyptic visions. The Jessica Chastain character feels an equal but opposite sense of danger about these visions as a response. With Akam, there's Srinivas's suspicion, but never a visceral moment that communicates Srinivas being in peril. He buys a hammer and nails, but that's it. His visions are cryptic rather than ominous with one exception, and none of them involve him in any direct kind of way. The again, maybe the fact that he reads personal/mortal significance into those visions shows just how wrecked his mind really is. (Or is it?)
I think it's admirable for Nair to tackle this kind of story in this warped and untethered perspective, and I wonder if Ramakrishnan's novel approached the story in the same way. I can tell that there's something on the shore worth investigating. In fact, I can still follow the little depressions in the sand. The problem with the ambiguities, though: it feels like the tide got there before I did.
[Akam (Palas in Bloom) will screen at the SVA Theater on Friday, October 26th.]