Director: Sidharth Bharathan
Writers: Sidharth Bharathan and Vinoy Thomas
Cast: Swasika Vijay, Roshan Mathew, Alencier Lay Lopez, Santhy Balachandran, Leona Lishoy, Jaffar Edukki
The quest for grey-shaded women in Malayalam cinema seems to have led quite a few filmmakers and writers to create female characters that emit lifelessness and sordid apathy. Chathuram (Square), Sidharth Bharathan’s latest directorial, is a femme fatale drama that trolls for attention and applauds from an audience hooked to pulpy stories published in shady news publications about women who kill or transgress.
The central attraction of this gunky drama is Selena (Swasika Vijay), a young woman without much of a past, defined solely by the curves of her body and her coolness about sex. Contrary to what the film would want you to believe, it isn’t the men in the film who are trapped in a square’ of greed or desire but this woman who is enclosed in bad camera angles and awful soft lighting, forbidden from expressing herself. She dresses, moves and behaves only for male eyes, her lines written by two men who might have never taken a remote interest in women. What would happen to her when that flat golden light is switched off? Would she still be able to seduce men, wrap them around her little finger, or inspire that background score which seems to have been lifted from a substandard horror movie? Unlikely.
The story is a familiar one, dug out from the depths of the erotic pulp thriller genre, about a bad marriage between Eldho (Alenzier Lopez), a middle-aged rich man, and Selena. There are no surprises. He takes her to his bungalow on a hill where everything is under his strict control. He is perverse and abusive, but she outsmarts him at one point. A young man, a home nurse (Roshan Mathew, in a lapse of judgement) named Balthazar enters and instantly gets drawn to the mistress of the house. Siddharth Bharathan and his writer Vinoy Thomas do not care to adapt this ancient material to a new cultural and social context, but use the oldest tricks in the erotic thriller manual.
The display of desire in Chathuram isn’t reflective or provocative by any measure, but downright offensive. The strangest fact about Chathuram is the moral panic at its core. The scenes of Selena raped and brutally beaten are shot elaborately, in crude camera angles that treat her like a domesticated animal. But the scenes of lovemaking are shot half-heartedly as though the filmmaker is shielding the audience from the sin of watching an immoral act. The screenplay does not look into Selena’s social background or study her psychological evolution from a rape victim to someone who wouldn’t stop until she gets what she wants. Instead, Chathuram frames itself as a horror tale where men are hapless victims who easily fall into the traps laid by clever women. In the silent era, the posters of Chathuram would have come with a warning line directed at men: “Beware of intelligent women!”
Shanthi Balachandran, a talented actress trapped in films that do not respect her potential, plays a character located at the other end of the spectrum. She is Jijimol, a god-fearing woman who wants nothing but a peaceful marriage. The women detest each other at first sight and try, in their own right, to claim ownership of the man. And this template “catfight” vindicates Balthazar of being utterly dishonest and greedy. Eldho is vindicated too, quickly sanctified with the help of a lousy background score that calls for pity, and turned into a victim of the femme fatale. Balthazar becomes the biblical figure, trying to protect the innocent Jesus from his enemies. A painful character arc.
Besides the many flaws described in this piece, Chathuram is also a showcase of mediocre performances. Swasika Vijay barely steps outside the predesigned realm of her character and resigns to delivering a charmless performance. She kisses and rolls on the bed nervously as though she is aware of being watched by a jury evaluating her performance. Siddharth Bharathan’s craftless staging of scenes ensures that none of her co-artists gets a meaningful moment in the narrative. Luckily for these actors, Chathuram is readily forgettable, a movie tailor-made to be seen and discarded from memory, which does not pull off even the cheap thrill the prime-time television soap operas or news debates aim to deliver.