Chithha Is About Child Safety, Not Child Abuse: Arun Kumar

"I have seen many child sexual abuse scenes in Tamil cinema. I do not like the way they portray abuse from the perpetrator’s point of view with disturbing close-ups," says the director
Chithha Is About Child Safety, Not Child Abuse: Arun Kumar

When director SU Arun Kumar set out to write Chithha, a sensitive, moving story about child safety, he was sure the film shouldn’t be about a single conflict. Instead, he wanted the film which detailed the relationship between an uncle (Siddharth) and his niece, to focus on how each of his characters reacted and dealt with challenging events. 

Arun says, “I really don’t want to fit into the grammar of one conflict, one solution. I love to closely look at the inner layers of the characters rather than going behind the antagonist. It is because I want this film to be in a personal space, and thereby relatable.” As a result, several issues happen one after another in Chithha, leaving you with no time to recover. But the film is brilliantly packaged with a sense of social consciousness. The director speaks about crafting a cautionary tale with sensitivity, his research process, and why he chose to include murder in the post-climax sequence.

Edited excerpts from a spoiler-filled interview below:

A still from Chithha
A still from Chithha

Chiththa is about child abuse, which is a very sensitive topic. What was that one ground rule you had while writing the film to ensure it was told with sensitivity?

According to me, Chithha is not about child abuse. It talks about child safety. It might sound dramatic but even before I began writing the script, the first line I wrote was that if I had a girl child, Chithha should be a film that the two of us could watch together. That was the rule. 

I have seen many child sexual abuse scenes in Tamil cinema. I do not like the way they portray abuse from the perpetrator’s point of view with disturbing close-ups. We are dealing with something very sensitive here. When I am trying to create awareness about child abuse, if I make Sahasra (Sahasra Shree, who plays Sundari) a part of such sequences, how would she feel when she looks back at the film years later? 

Moreover, if I am watching it with my kid and she questions the usage of blood, what would I say? How could a mother explain? We did a lot of research and many people on the ground like police officers, NGOs, survivors and others read our script before we locked the final draft. When I began writing, I knew the film would be U/A certified. I wanted the kids to watch, question and learn. 

Chithha Is About Child Safety, Not Child Abuse: Arun Kumar
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So why did you have that one disturbing scene featuring the kidnapper and Sundari in an abandoned building?

I thought that was very important. All that she keeps asking him is when she will get to meet Chittha. But the kidnapper uses that to make her fall into the trap. If you didn’t have that scene, you would have never felt the threat of the antagonist. In that sense, the whole screenplay is trickier. If I had kept insisting from the beginning that revenge is wrong, the film would have become preachy. Instead, there is a Tamil saying, “Thee sudum nu sonna theriyaadhu, sutta thaan theriyum.” You needed that antagonist scene to feel that hatred. So you would have clapped when Eswaran killed the kidnapper. But later, you would have questioned yourself. 

Siddharth's Eswaran getting ready to murder the kidnapper
Siddharth's Eswaran getting ready to murder the kidnapper

What was your brief for Sahasra? How did you ensure all of this doesn’t affect her?

I used to tell her that her character was kidnapped by an uncle and Chithha would come to save her. Likewise, I would say that it all happened because she was using the phone the other day. For hospital scenes, we told her that she met with an accident and got hurt. Her parents knew the script well. We spoke to her like our parents used to warn us about being safe as kids. I didn’t want her to know anything else. She had fun on the set.

Can you elaborate on the research process?

It was a huge process. We did extensive research and read up about real-life cases. We wanted to get the right details about the POCSO Act (Protection Of Children from Sexual Offences Act), the inquest procedure and more. For instance, when the POCSO officer enters Ponni’s house, she is not in uniform. She will go as a civilian because these officers don’t wear a uniform while going to a kid’s house to avoid discussions emerging in the neighbourhood.

In the whole film, I don’t think there were even mentions of words like rape or abuse.

Yes, we don’t mention it anywhere. When Eswaran’s friend Suresh meets him at the bus stand after the judgement, he says, “Sundari ku kaaranam aanadhu vera oruthan, Ponni ku kaaranam aanadhu vera oruthan da.” The dialogue “kaaranam aanadhu” is a very old usage. Colloquially, we might say pannadhu/senjadhu. I felt even that would be wrong because it could get conveyed differently. The word “rape” is used only twice, once when they speak to the police officer and once in the court, just for legal usage. I didn’t want to use the term when it was about the kids.

A still from Chithha
A still from Chithha

One scene that stood out for me was Nimisha Sajayan putting up a fight when asked to clean a toilet. Why did you have that scene?

I am also making a film which features the sanitation department in the background. Sakthi could have become anyone. But we chose this because metaphorically the young Sundari has only grown to become Sakthi. Her identity is not that of a rape survivor but a sanitation worker. And no job is inferior. I wanted to put that out there. She boldly tells them to clean it themselves, and that’s something I wanted to say. In the overall narrative, we needed a scene that would cause issues between Eswaran and Ponni’s father because only then the former would not drop her at home. Instead of having any random conflict, I thought we could say something that society needs to hear.

You do not portray Siddharth as the typical hero who gets to save the kid or successfully gets his revenge. Who is a hero according to you?

Anybody is a hero. For me, anybody who helps others or sacrifices is a hero. Why did the lady in the share auto get claps in the theatre? She did nothing, she just helped the kid and she is a hero. 

Tell us about Sakthi’s relationship with Eswaran. What becomes of this relationship and do they sort out their issues?

The climax where she opens up about her past is where they resolve their initial conflicts that happened when they were in 12th grade. She doesn’t come back to Palani for him but when she sees his love for her has not changed, she falls in love with him again. In the second half, she keeps telling him to not take revenge and tries to stop him several times, her last method is when she opens up. She is upset that he didn’t understand it before. But when he still seeks revenge after listening to her plight, she leaves. The conflict prevails. The main point of the story is when, she says, “Avan sethu 6 years aachu, poi kollu po.”

What will it solve? How many people will one be able to kill? And how many of those would actually be criminals? What if Ponni’s father had killed Siddharth? He would’ve killed an innocent person. Revenge doesn’t solve the purpose. We need to be there for the people who suffer.

Siddharth and Nimisha Sajayan in Chithha
Siddharth and Nimisha Sajayan in Chithha

This concept is also strongly conveyed in the film. But doesn’t that final scene of a murder sort of undo the whole message?

The movie actually ends on the bed with Eswaran and Sundari. But I had a couple of more scenes to consider. One is of Sundari, a few months after the incident. Her identity lies not in the hospital bed but in her smile. Another is where we show two policemen finding the burnt body of the kidnapper. I had this scene because when the audience walks out of the theatre, they shouldn’t think that a kidnapper could roam freely, and all that they can do is keep their kids always within their view. This scene is not there in the festival cuts, but is purely for the audience. The murder is not done by Siddharth because then the whole film would be wrong. That is why the police officer says that it could be anyone and that all that matters is the kidnapper being dead. It could’ve even been an accident. 

I understand the intention. But when you say that there is a burnt body, don’t you think it conveys revenge anyway? Isn’t that against the film’s idea?

I think it didn’t get conveyed that way. But if it has, it’s wrong. I had a few other ideas like, for instance, he gets killed in a bus accident. But if I begin to detail it this way, you will have to see his face. I didn’t want the viewers to go back with his face in their minds. I wanted them to take the kid’s smile home. In our efforts to keep it short, a confusion might have been created. We will correct it next time.

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