It’s been several days since I watched Putul Mahmood’s ATASI on MUBI. It took me 2-3 days to watch the film, a few minutes on the first day, switched off because I was too disturbed, a little more the next day with a little more courage, and then, the rest. I wanted to write about the film as soon as I watched it, but instead found myself, over and over again, thinking about it, remembering it’s images, groping to understand what I felt about the film.
A couple of years ago, I was willy-nilly, in the middle of a feud within a family that my daughter and I have been very close to for over 20 years, our previous neighbours when she was a toddler. As I waited in the present, in the small 200 square foot house, that contained within itself living room, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and looked at the peeling paint on the walls, the damp on the ceiling, the hot stuffiness that emanated from the walls containing so many people, the complete helplessness of the ceiling fan, I felt nauseated at the miserly pickings over which the family was fighting. The number of people living within the house had reduced over the years and yet the house was too small now to contain them, when 20 years ago, the family had been larger and yet had place for my toddler daughter and me, a refuge from our traumatic life next door.
My daughter and I had moved on to better lives, but our affectionate neighbours had gotten lost in acrimony within themselves. And of course, it was the sheer miserliness of the pickings that made the fight between all of them so bitter, there was too little to share with grace, it was just not enough. And I understood it too well, because I had passed by these paths myself.
In the film, Atasi’s fight with her mother and brother revolve around similar paltry amounts, a few hundreds, a couple of thousands, that tear at your innards by how even so little means so much for so many people. The film has the same rawness, the same unfiltered emotion that one witnesses usually only in the deepest privacy of the family circle. But Putul Mahmood’s gaze remains so restrained, so polite, that even as Atasi and her family expose their most ugly realities, they do not lose their dignity. The director refrains from shooting too much, asking too many questions, allowing Atasi and her family the space to breathe before the camera.
The deftness of the film lies in the fact that it is to all purposes, constructed of 4 main scenes. One comprising the fight, one that explores her romantic, happy present with her husband, a visit to the mental hospital where Atasi was forcibly confined by her family, and Atasi’s leaving with her husband to go back to her marital home. The camera in each situation stays mainly with Atasi, and yet manages to convey the space, the dynamics of their family relationships. Some of the shots are embedded in my mind, they come up again and again as I think of Atasi. Atasi’s husband’s ease with her as he lies down on the floor, reassuring her as she complains about her family, prompting her to be strong, to recognise the true nature of her mother and her brother’s feelings towards her. The camera following Atasi up and down, and up and down again and again, as she moves through the house, packing up, getting ready to leave, talking to her family, shouting at her brother to get out of the bathroom, watching her husband cook the last meal for the family, and her mother’s pleas to both of them to come back. The camera holding on to the mother’s hands as again and again she clasps Atasi’s hands, expressing a love, a need, which she cannot quite do verbally.
ATASI depicts in a very under-stated way, the many nuances of a portrait of a young Indian woman – sexual exploitation within her own circle of family or friends, poverty that could lead to her family wanting her to extend sexual favours, or work as a prostitute, the right to property that a man feels entitled to, and any bid for independence or questioning on the point of a young woman being dismissed as hysteria and madness. But Atasi’s inherent feistiness, her love for her husband Sandesh that enables her to move on with her life after spending a year at the mental hospital, her clear-eyed honesty about what her family wants from her now, and despite knowing that, being caring enough not to give up on them, leaves you with hope, in fact, with a smile, as Atasi, seated in the train, going back to the in-laws who adore her, grins and admits that her mother and brother only need her for the money she gives them, but in her smile, you can see that she has for the most part, resolved the questions on why her family treated her the way they did for herself, that she does not expect much from them any more, she expects no different, and that allows her to stand by them, clearly seeing their need.
This is a film that gets its power not from startling revelations or intrusive intimacy, rather from its kindness towards all the people within it. It does not seek to blame, or vilify one over the other, but stands rock-steady in its empathy for Atasi. By not seeking to interrogate Atasi’s brother or mother about why they confined her to the mental hospital, by sticking to the story that Atasi seeks to tell the world, Putul Mahmood in fact, allows you to get over your discomfiture as a viewer, and come away with the thought, that maybe Atasi’s truth is not the only truth, and yet, what is important is that despite their fights, their grievances, the family has found a way to stay together, and Atasi has carved out her own space on her own terms within it.