Chithha Review: Siddharth Anchors This Heart-Rending Story About Child Abuse With Sensitivity
Director and Writer: S.U. Arun Kumar
Duration: 142 minutes
Available in: Theatres
At one point in the film, a misogynistic husband yells at his wife over a clogged toilet. As he walks out of the house, he spots two sanitation workers walking by. He tells one of them to clean the toilet for a cup of tea in return. The worker is hesitant but is unable to muster the courage to tell him off. But the woman accompanying him, stands up for her friend. A verbal war on the verge of a physical tiff ensues, but Eswaran intervenes (aka Eesu, played by Siddharth) and accidentally knocks the owner down. Does this scene have anything to do with the central plot of Chiththa? Not so much. But it is positioned in the film for a reason. Arun Kumar makes powerful statement even with the smallest characters, treating them with the respect they deserve. And that’s what makes Chithha special.
When you see Sundari (she goes by Setta, and is played by Sahasra Sree) and her Chitha (short for Chithappa, her father's brother) Eesu for the first time, the former is hiding behind a tree. For a split second, Eesu is scared that his niece is lost and almost hits the school’s watchman. But he soon understands her prank and plays along. He plays a video game and yells out for her help to defeat the opponent. Sundari comes from her hiding spot and subconsciously starts teaching him. And Eesu slowly embraces her, chiding her softly. This first sequence says a lot about Setta’s place in Eesu’s life. But it is also here Arun Kumar subtly gives us a glimpse of what’s about to happen.
You might go to the theatres to enjoy the moments of a Chithha and his niece, but what equally moves you is the relationship he shares with his widowed sister-in-law (Anjali Nair). The same is true with Chithha and Sakthi (an earnest Nimisha Sajayan in her Tamil debut). The one look they share is enough to tell you that they have a history. All of this makes the film feel close to reality. A sense of familiarity and comfort is so seamlessly nestled in this hard-hitting story about child abuse that you don’t need a lot of scenes to understand how high-stakes situations change people.
The first half plays out like an emotional drama, where you know the truth much before the characters do and you deeply empathise. You fear for them and grieve along with them. But post the interval, you know only as much as they do, except for a sequence much later in the film. For instance, in the film’s most tense sequences, you get a long stretch defining everyone’s changing life around Setta. Instead of telling us things, Arun Kumar keeps us in the shadows and we realise that this emotion hits differently. That’s when Chiththa becomes a thriller — where you are scared, not for them, but with them.
If you are wondering whether the film is as disturbing and triggering as a film about sexual abuse usually is, narratively, yes. But Arun Kumar and cinematographer Balaji Subramaniam ensure there is nothing voyeuristic about the visuals. Even when it talks about the dead body of a much-searched killer, the central focus is on a rock, behind which lies the acid-burnt body. This leaves a major part of the horror to our imagination and also makes us feel as if we are one among the characters, who only hear the details of the tragedy with no witnesses.
There are scenes where Eesu easily solves a few mysteries but you don’t question those, mostly because you don’t really care how they solve it. But more because of two other reasons — you do not have the time to process the logic behind it and Arun Kumar immediately shifts the focus to other details, those that you really care for. For a film that revels in realism, it’s hard to understand why Eesu and Sakthi never get to sort out their differences or get a moment to reflect. Sakthi is left with tears after a fight. But after almost a week, she is back helping his family and they never talk about it. Later, the film uses her trauma to help Eesu realise his mistakes. A convenient choice. We never get to see what becomes of their relationship.
Eesu is easily Siddharth’s most affecting performance till date. The character goes through a lot in the film; he goes from feeling like the happiest person in the world to the most helpless in a matter of a few scenes. The actor makes it possible for us to go beyond his expressive eyes and get into his head. The film provides agency to each of the characters and even drives you to rethink notions of heroism, revenge and the mindset of a survivor. The world out there is scary, and the film tells you that. But what Chithha constantly wants to remind us is that with the power of love, you can fight any battle.