‘Ramayana Was Written Thousands Of Years Ago And We’re Still Trying To Live That Kind Of Life’ – Sanal Kumar Sasidharan

Fresh off the screening of ‘Chola’ in the Orizzonti section of the Venice Film Festival, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan opens up about the movie, which originated in the Suryanelli rape case.
‘Ramayana Was Written Thousands Of Years Ago And We’re Still Trying To Live That Kind Of Life’ – Sanal Kumar Sasidharan

So Sanal, let's start with this. What is your fascination with the Ramayana?

I was surprised to see that you figured it out. It felt very nice when I read your review. You know in my childhood, I used to read the Ramayana. It was this growing-up ritual, reading it with my father. That story has created the whole Indian society: the morals, the principles for women, the principles for society and obedience, virginity, chastity, everything. It was written thousands of years ago and still in this age, we're trying to live that kind of life. So I think we need to reread it and reconstruct it to find out what is wrong in our society.

So when you make a film, when you write it, does it just happen to reflect the Ramayana, because, as you say, it is so prevalent in our society? Or are you actually saying, 'I want to take that bit of Ramayana and examine it…'

It is a mutual kind of happening. Sometimes, I start thinking about something else then I find that this is really connected to this kind of culture, so I think I need to give some kind of note here. There is nothing in Chola that overtly connects with the Ramayana. I think the only person who will talk about it is you. I think you know it, that's why. Maybe the international audience won't get it, maybe the Indian audience also won't get it because there is no connection with Rama, Ravana and all, in that very obvious sense.

But when I saw that image of Joju George lifting Nimisha Sajayan near the waterfall, the first mental image that came to me was that of Ravana and Sita. Plus, there was that forest…

I think you are so intensely familiar with the story. That's why you read it this way.

But apart from my reading, did you think of it that way?

Yeah, yeah. There are so many connections. As you said, in Sexy Durga, too, it is there. In this film, too. It's the way we treat women and the way we pretend that we are actually giving them some space, that we are their protectors, expecting them to commit to one man, that kind of thing. I can connect all this to our epics.

When you were making this film, was the script improvised as you went along, like in your earlier films? Because there's a co-writer credited here, KV Manikandan… 

Actually, this story came into my mind much before my first film, before Oraalppokkam. I thought about it when I saw an interview of a well-known writer. It was related to the Suryanelli rape incident, where a 16-year-old schoolgirl was kidnapped and gang-raped over a period of 40 days. The traumatised girl became an outcast. The writer was asking why our girl children are doing this, that they need to understand that nothing has happened to them in a rape. It is just a thing of washing it away.

People were not asking why these men did these things to this girl. They were asking why this girl didn't shout and try to escape. That is our society's problem, because we tend to put this female image in the dark shape. It is not only an Indian problem. It is in the Middle East, in Islamic countries. If you are getting raped, you have to undergo whiplashes, because they consider that the rape happened because of the woman. That means that you always carry that potential to do sin and you tempt people. I think it is a cultural problem, and society has tutored us, children are tutored. So, in the beginning of Chola, there is a story that there is a treasure and somebody will come, and once it is taken… that kind of thing.

But was this idea actually written out as a script, this time?

At that time, I started writing with Manikandan. It was in 2008 or 2009, I think. But then, the script changed. I had done other films and there were a lot of personal experiences, and  I needed to change my perspectives. My film style changed as well. So when I was actually shooting Chola, I scrapped a lot of things in the script. I just used it as a reference. Chola was certainly scripted, but there was scope for improvisation, and we improvised a lot.

In Sexy Durga, you have this boy and this girl, and a similar kind of oppression. Did you feel Chola had some similarities in the basic setup?

Yeah. It is there. I totally understand that, I totally knew that. And some of my friends had already said there is a similarity to Sexy Durga. But for me, it is okay. Because if you're painting something, you can make a series.

The film felt to me like the third part of a trilogy.

Yeah. I read it. It is very nice that you thought so. I also personally feel that there was a connection from my first film onwards. I was trying to understand the relationship between man and woman, how it works, that kind of thing. Oraalppokkam is also the same – the ego, the man trying to conquer the woman, his failure and the trauma he creates. I don't know if I am going to make any statement. I am just trying to understand that. Maybe after a film I feel that what I said is not right, or something is left over.

Do you make films because you want to understand something or you want to say something?

It is not about saying, because the society is very large. The experience of the society if you compare to the experience of the individual, it is huge. You are nothing, you are a drop. So I think you can make an opinion, you can't make a statement. Before making an opinion, you need to understand. While an artist is making a painting, he needs to look into the canvas first. He needs to look into the blankness. Then he starts talking, then he understands that there is a picture. And he goes on to painting, and the picture will evolve. Only then will he understand that this was in my mind. I totally understand that kind of thing when I make a film. On the editing table, this is a kind of reward. All the time, if somebody asks me why I am making a film, I feel that I am making the film to understand it while editing it. When I edit it, I feel that this is something that I wanted to do.

Has it happened that when you were editing, you found that "Oh my God, this is not what I wanted to do"?

I am not shy to say that sometimes it is better than what I set out to do. Sometimes you want to say something and on the way you understand that there is another way, another path you can go. Finally, you realise that what you started has not finished, but you went another way and you made something and that is also good. Then you realise that some portion is still pending, and you can go back and do that.

Which film has this happened in?

I think from my first film, Oraalppokkam, onwards. I have done this thing and in a way, it is a failure. I wanted to say something or I wanted to make an opinion on something, then I deviated and I ended up somewhere else. But that is also fascinating for me, at least for me. It is good because I learnt something and it was not something I thought of earlier. On the way I realised that there is a possibility and an opening, I went through that and it became a film. So I like Oraalppokkam very much, but if you ask me if I am satisfied, then no. I am not satisfied. Because I wanted to explore something and I deviated. Even though there was a script, I was totally curious about what would happen if I go in this way. Even the camera movement changes, even the use of actors changes, even some selection of location changes and I am always thrilled to get the magic of the time. If you open the camera, you'll find something in the field and you want to use it in your film. Then after sometime, you compare where you started and where you ended up, and you'll be totally unsatisfied. You want to do this again. Sometimes, people say once you take up this scenario, you shouldn't take it up again. I don't care.

There's a certain formal quality to this film that I did not find in your earlier films. There are some complicated shots here and it just looked like you had either story-boarded or really discussed the way a certain shot should be done or something like that. 

No, no. Even my cameraman was not aware about what I was going to shoot next. So he would keep asking me what is our next shot, and I used to say that I would finish this first and then let's see. So, it is not scripted or story-boarded. It is as usual. But one thing may be right in what you say. I keep doing this thing, year after year, and maybe some kind of formality has come into my mind. If that is so, I really hate it. Because if I continue like this, I will end up in a similar kind of pattern, and I don't want to do that.

One of the things you have done in your "trilogy" is show powerful people exploiting powerless people. Do you think  there is more to be mined from this same scenario, or do you feel that for your next film you'll try something different?

Actually, I am trying to do an extension of Oraalppokkam in my new film. As I said I am not satisfied with the outcome of Oraalppokkam, because I was aiming for something, and I got a totally different result. So I wanted to revisit and explore another portion. It is not about the same characters. But I am really curious to see how it comes out, if I explore that area. I totally believe in that potential of cinema. That is why I am sticking to low-budget films. I know that the mass audience is not going to accept it. I don't know about Chola, because it is a thriller. But at the same time, it asks a lot of questions. Some people may not digest it. It needs a certain kind of mindset.

What may not be digested?

The girl suddenly changes her mind. People may ask why this is happening…

But that is what makes the story so interesting. After a point, I could not predict what was going to happen, because the girl was acting in such an unusual way.

That was the crux of the story. In the Suryanelli case, people were asking why the girl was not protesting against the rape. Society took it as though she had enjoyed the whole thing. But for me, it is not like that. The girl is a child. You are imposing a trauma. You are hitting her hard, and she can change. I have seen it. I was a lawyer. I have seen so many cases like this. People suddenly behave abnormally and you can't predict why they are behaving like this. There was a girl living near my house and she was working somewhere, and something happened there, a love failure or something. She totally forgot her father, mother, and she was saying that she didn't belong to that place. So it is all your mental perception, which can change.

You name your women Durga and Janaki (in Chola), and in Ozhivudivasathe Kali, there is a man named Dharman. These are obvious references to our legends and myths, aren't they?

I think not. Some things are intentional, for example, Janaki and Durga. And Dharman, it was in the story. In Oraalppokkam, the names were Mahendran and Maya. It was intentional. In my new film Kayattam, I am retaining the name Maya. It is partially intentional, and partially it is a kind of finding.

What do you mean by 'finding'?

It is an intuition. If you like something, you will try to understand why you are liking it, or why you are not taking it. Some people will come up with suggestions and suddenly we deny it. As a director, if somebody makes a suggestion, my ego hurts. This isn't my idea, so I will discard it. Then, I truthfully think about it. I need to find out why I am discarding it. There must be a reason for not taking this suggestion. That is why it is a finding — finding out why you like or dislike something.

What about your titles? Why is this film called Chola?

Chola is about water. We have the international title as Shadow of Water. Chola is actually very soothing. Chola in Malayalam means shadow, wetland and waterfall, so it has a lot of meanings. At first, you feel that the word itself is very cool. And in the titling, you can read Chola as Chora also. It is blood.

Oh, so that's why the title starts off in one colour and then turns red. 


When you name a film Sexy Durga, you know there is going to be some kind of response to it. Given the political climate, you can guess…

I asked my friend to design a poster for the film, and suddenly he said that it is going to create a controversy. I asked him why he thought so. He said Durga is a goddess and 'sexy' can't go with that. Then I asked: How many Durgas do you know around you? He said: A lot. Then I asked: So why are you thinking about the goddess? He said: It is society. I said, then, that that is not my problem, it is society's problem, so we should go ahead and do it. A discussion is good, it is very good. But what happens is that in our society, a discussion becomes a controversy. Once it becomes a controversy, you forget about the discussion and the subject matter. Then you will make noise, but no valuable meaning will come from that. That is very sad. I thought the film would create a healthy discussion. For the time being, it is not healthy, but I think it will become healthy in the future.

But why that word 'sexy'? How did you see that? 

In Saundarya Lahari, Adi Shankara describes the goddess as sexy. I don't feel there's anything bad about it.

No, it's not anything bad. I am just asking how you saw it.

That is a kind of ecstasy. When Shankracharya is describing a goddess, he is describing her breasts, among other things. So I don't feel that our society has a problem, but they are stuck somewhere. They don't know from where they are. They forget their culture. There is a contradiction. Once you see goddess as almighty, she is Durga, Parvati, whatever. Some kind of usability, a kind of perception of women, comes into play. There is a fallacy in society's approach. There is no truthfulness. If you are truthful, then you should treat every Durga as goddess Durga. But you are not going to do that. And these same people will make huge controversies and make death threats.

You spoke so much about society. Do you see yourself as a social filmmaker?

No, no. I am totally inside the society. When I make a film, I understand that I am the same shit. I am not doing it as an outsider. I am inside. When I discuss patriarchy, I am totally a man and I have some problems and I try to impose these things. If you ask if it is not wrong, I will say it is wrong, but I can't help, because it is in my cells from thousands of years. Maybe my kids will change, or maybe some other generations will change. When you find out, there is a kind of regret, there is a kind of guilt. So if you feel that guilt, that what you did or what you are doing is wrong, and if it reflects in your further life and if it reflects in your works of art, then it can have the potential to change somebody else. You may die tomorrow and you may die without any change, as the male chauvinist you always were. But what you're doing – your works of art- will speak. Even though I am creating a film by myself, it is created by the society, because the society created me. So everything is shared responsibility. It's not only me. Even though I am taking credit, I am indebted to the society that I live in, whatever it is.

So… society has brought you to Venice.

Yeah, sure, sure. There's no doubt about it.

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