Suzhal – The Vortex, a mini-series, has received excellent reviews, especially, for the representation of the sensitive issue of child sexual abuse. No one can deny the fact that it is a positive sign as the chosen theme is very much relevant. As we realise the importance of dealing with such themes, we must also carefully study the manner of representation. This series uses the framework of a crime-thriller to trace the abuser and interestingly, interpolates the ritual of Mayana Kollai into it. The double-layered narration of the story provides the element of suspense, complexity and grandeur. As the story progresses, the investigation of the police trying to reveal the abuser, finally, crisscrosses with the victim’s explosion, which is blended with Goddess Angali’s annihilation of the demon.
The ritual overlay adds a rich colour to the lush green forests of the village. It is not only used to create stunning visuals but also to reflect the central theme of the story. It is believed that Angalamman saved a girl from an arakan with the help of her assistant Paavaadarayan. Similarly, Nandini turns herself into the goddess Angalamman as she kills the perpetrator. The scenes of investigation intercut with the scenes of the ritual establish this parallel right through the series. The infusion of myth into reality in this case intensifies the situation and leads to high-octane performances in the final episode. In addition to this, it brings the shared belief in the sacred power of virgin women and the concept of retributive justice alive. Ancient Tamils believed in such a divine mechanism when human law fails to protect. Kannaki, the protagonist in the famous epic, Cilapathikaram, burns down the entire Madurai town for the injustice done to her husband. Cenkuttuvan, the ruler of Chera dynasty, builds a temple in honour of Kannaki to acknowledge her support as a tutelary deity of his kingdom. Sub-Inspector Sakkarai’s (played by Kathir), closing statement, “Angalamman awoke the sleeping demon and slaughtered him. Now, she rests,” in the final episode reiterates Nandini’s apotheosis into the goddess. Most importantly, the audience who identifies with the pain of Nandini is pacified by the gruesome murder of the abuser.
As discussed above, using mythological references is not something new. Generally, the hero (good) is transformed to the status of a god as he fights the villain (demon). References from epics, Ramayana and Mahabharatham are taken constantly. The image of burning Ravana’s effigy is mostly shown to mark the win of good over evil. On the contrary, Suzhal weaves the myth of a local deity. It is to be noted that most of the local deities themselves are victims of sexual abuse. It is no doubt that goddess Angali captures the transformation that happens in the character of Nandini: from a submissive victim to a destroyer of evil. People without a second thought celebrate such an elevation and act of delivering justice. However, it is essential to scrutinize how the mythical framework throws light on sexual abuse. If we move down this line of thought, the foremost question that arises in this context is whether the parallel between Nandini and Goddess Angali gives an insight into sexual abuse in general and the victim’s perspective in particular.
To bring out the impact of child sexual abuse, the inherently hierarchical and oppressive aspects of family structure, one of the pillars of patriarchy, must be exposed. The familial ties provide the adults a hold over the children whereas domestic space provides a safe haven for the abuser. As the children are sexually abused, the fear of revealing the fact haunts them. Consequently, they become submissive to the dominance and at times, remain psychologically damaged. To put it simply, they are caught in a vortex of despair. Suzhal, instead of recording the traumatic experience of the sexual abuse, uses many red herrings which alienate us from the actual issue and particularly, from the character of Nila. The plot uses the same old template of mainstream cinema: hero eliminating villain. This is the reason why the main focus is on the revelation of the villain and what the victim does with him. In this pursuit, the factors of sexual abuse find no attention.
As the audience is alienated from the actual issue, they are not able to either understand or identify with the character of Nila. The plot of Suzhal builds tension with Nila’s disappearance and subsequently, her death. We get glimpses of her life in a series of flashbacks: cinematic love between her and Adheesayam and their plot to kill the perpetrator. The problem with such a representation is we don’t get any hint at her experience and perspective. The mythical framework further distances us from the lived experience of the victim. Also, it reduces the entire series into a story of revenge, moving in the linear direction from suppression through anger to annihilation. Despite the absence of a proper representation of the point of view of the victims, the motive of killing the perpetrator is made stronger in both Nila and Nandini. As a result, they are sucked into the vortex of the binary: total submission and explosion.
Yet another problem with the portrayal is demonizing the abuser. He is also a human with different shades of character. This does not mean that he must be forgiven. The intention to eliminate the abuser while viewing him as an evil entity will not yield any fruitful results. Particularly, in the case of child sexual abuse within domestic space, the victim has to stand against the very system that claims to protect him/her and overcome post-traumatic stress after the revelation. Mostly, the victim might have to live with the abuser under the same roof. The layered narration of Suzhal does not deal with any of these problems. Most often it turns against itself. It boils down to two views: sympathise with the victim and eliminate the abuser. Moreover, it simplifies complex and ambiguous socio-economic-cultural relations. For instance, the series presents arguments like industries guarantee poor people’s livelihood; a capitalist may also work for the welfare of the workers; a Marxist union leader may join hands with the industry owner.
I haven’t intended to impose my reading on the series. I rather have attempted to discuss how Suzhal, while trying to touch upon the issue of child sexual issue, does not deal with the circumstances under which children are abused, their unspeakable traumatic experience, their post-traumatic stress if they try to fight the abuser. Interestingly, the abuser also doesn’t find enough space in the narration. I think the creator might have kept him as an absolute evil waiting to be revealed. The use of a mythical framework in a dead old commercial formula has made the issue of sexual abuse a factor that only serves the purpose of keeping the audience in suspense.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.