Director: Sanal Kumar Sasidharan
Cast: Joju George, Nimisha Sajayan, Akhil Viswanath
Once upon a time, there was a prince. A wimpy prince. This is the fairy tale that opens Chola (Shadow of Water), Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's Malayalam film that screened at the Orizzonti (Horizons) section of the Venice Film Festival. The fairy tale is being told by one woman to another, probably grandmother to granddaughter, and it's also about a woman, a virgin in a forest. It's the story of a man wanting to own this woman, of this woman wondering whom she belongs to, as though she were a piece of property. The film's English title makes sense. In some cultures, Woman is like a shadow, and like water, which takes the shape of the container it is in. A woman, too, moulds herself according to her man. That's what's been happening. And that's WRONG!
No shit! But then Sanal's cinema has never been about the message itself, which has always been pretty unsubtle, pretty rudimentary. It's about the chilling delivery of this message. He constructs vivid, primal scenarios of the strong preying on the weak, and tosses us right in. We aren't just aware of what is happening. We experience it. Chola could be called the third instalment in Sanal's "oppression trilogy". It is very much a companion piece to Ozhivudivasathe Kali and S Durga. As in the latter film, the heroine (Nimisha Sajayan) takes her name from Hindu legend: she's Janaki, which was a name of Sita. (S Durga, if you recall, opened with a quote from the Ramayana.) And like her namesake from the epic, Janaki suffers horribly — in a forest, no less. The Ravana of this story, the oppressor, is played by Joju George. He is used more as a presence, as a physical manifestation — his huge frame is used to emphasise how he looms (and lords over) over the others. He is referred to only as aasan, which means "master" or "boss". That's what he is to this film's wimpy Rama figure (the scrawny Akhil Viswanath, looking like Joju George's arm), aka Janaki's boyfriend. This could be the wimpy boyfriend from S Durga, or the wimpy prince from the fairy tale. Sanal's heroines do end up saddled with the worst protectors.
The boyfriend remains unnamed. So does aasan, but at least, he's called something that indicates his position of power, his status as "boss". The boyfriend is nothing, a nobody. He sets out with Janaki from their Edenic village to catch the sights of the big city. He has asked aasan, who owns a Jeep, to take them on the trip. Couldn't he have arranged something by himself? Probably not. He'd probably have to explain why he needed a vehicle, and he'd have been too scared to do that. He hides when two men from his village pass the Jeep. He's scared of his aasan, almost servile. Later, in the city, he panics when he cannot reach aasan on the phone. Janaki is scared, too. She's in her uniform — either to suggest she's still in school or to say she's as unspecial, unremarkable as another woman in the village. (She's not an individual person, she's just… Woman.) She hugs her schoolbag, like an armour. She thought it was just going to be her and the boyfriend. She wants to back out. But he coaxes and cajoles, and she hops in.
This coaxing and cajoling seems innocent at first, mere pleading. But it fits into the film's grand design about men forcing their wishes (and their selves) on women. I was reminded of the moment, in S Durga, when Durga and the boyfriend get out of the van and have a small argument. She says the men were ogling her. His response is shocking. "But what if we don't get another lift?" That this gentle, considerate man is evaluating the practicality of things over Durga's evident discomfort shows how it's not always the "bad guys" — the oppressors — who end up endangering women (or, in the case of Chola, disempowering them). According to Sanal, the good guys seem to be playing their part too.
Gradually, and for the briefest while, Janaki loosens up. She laughs. The big city is everything she hoped for. She gazes at the tall buildings. She wanders around in a shiny mall. She splashes about in the sea. But for the most part, she has no agency. Like a shadow, like water, she obeys what she's ordered to do. She's forced to eat. (aasan wears a T-shirt that says "Eat Eat Eat".) Her change of clothes is picked by the boyfriend — though, at least, she indicates what she wants. And when she says she wants to leave, neither man listens to her. After a while she just gives up, surrenders to the situation. Why doesn't she take off by herself? Probably because she's too afraid. Or maybe because some kind of Stockholm syndrome has set in.
Nimisha Sajayan is stupendous. She doesn't overdo the disgust when she's forced to use a makeshift toilet, whose corrugated door waves like a flag in a storm (and is graffitied with scrawls of naked women). She doesn't overdo the discomfort when she walks into a shop filled with nude female mannequins, being clothed by a man. These omens are everywhere. And when she does get into serious trouble, her performance turns near-wordless. All we hear are variations of cries and whimpers of a cornered animal. As always, some of us will find ourselves asking: Is Sanal a sadist? Or is the oppressiveness of his film a mirror of the oppression he wishes to portray? Basil CJ contributes a deeply disturbing electronic score, a series of throbbing moods that burrows into your consciousness like a bad dream.
Few films in recent times have used Nature so brilliantly. Dark forests lit by the headlights of a Jeep, God's-eye-view shots of a winding ghat road, the unexpected delicacy of a spider's web, the seemingly unending path of a churning river — cinematographer Ajith Aacharya conjures up a malevolent universe. He sets up an unsettling fever mood with a dizzying 360-degree swirl around an empty street, but his unshowy shots of mists and swaying reeds are even better. We feel the wind. Water is a predominant motif, and the waterfalls seem to weep with Janaki. The colour red punctuates the film, throughout. It's the colour of a bucket, of aasan's track pants, of a stain of virginal blood, of a dupatta… By the end, the screen turns red in wholly unexpected ways. There's not a moment I saw coming.
Chola is Sanal's finest film — or more precisely, it's the fullest and most artistically realised version of the theme he's been pursuing in his earlier films. (I haven't seen his first feature, Oraalppokkam.) The superb screenplay is by Sanal and KV Manikandan, and it follows the Deliverance template we saw in Ozhivudivasathe Kali. A lot of my colleagues loved that film, but the characters were too obviously representative of the Big Points being made and the design struck me as excessively programmatic. You could argue that Sanal doesn't believe in backstories or background, and his characters are symbolic and representational (and you'd be right) — but even with a similar structure, S Durga was a more elegant outing, less on-the-nose, more outward-looking (though after a point, it felt like it was on a loop, repeating itself). Chola is even more diffuse, and the brilliant abstraction makes it impossible to reduce the film to pat scene summaries, especially in the closing portions. Chola is a fitting summation of Sanal's big theme. I don't see what else he can do with it. Translation: It may be time for him to move on.