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Review Malayalam

Chola review: Disturbing film with strong message on the power politics of patriarchy

Release Date: 06 Dec 2019 / 02hr 00min

Cinestaan Rating

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Roushni Sarkar

Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's film puts out the bizarrely dark aspects of the reality that we usually choose to ignore. It will make you thoroughly uncomfortable.

Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Chola is a well-made film that is also disturbing to the core. In the director's own words, Chola is an absurd film, but significantly it puts out the bizarrely dark aspects of the reality that we choose to ignore. It is not easy to visually depict the psychological trauma of a rape victim and the social conditions that add to it. Sanal Kumar achieves this monumental task with just three characters in his film, titled Shadows Of Water in English.

A large part of the film is set in a road journey on amazingly curvy roads through serene Southern hills, that too in incessant rain. The magnifying presence of nature, with its calmness and silence, lends volumes to the pain of the victim and also brings alive the bestial instincts of all three characters.

The film is multi-layered and there is scope for multiple interpretations of the narrative. A young lover (Akhil Visvanadh) promises to take his girlfriend (Nimisha Sajayan) on a tour of the city, without her family's knowledge, and bring her back home by evening.

The girl is surprised when she finds that her lover is accompanied by his Boss (Joju George), who drives them to the city. She is not quite pleased with the presence of a third person, while her naïve lover continues to reassure her that everything is fine. The playful scuffle between the two and the silent gaze of the Boss gradually build up a mood that prevents the audience from thinking that she will have a good trip. You know the inevitable when she eventually gets over her anger and bursts into frolic with her boyfriend as the Boss takes notice in the rear-view mirror.

The road journey gradually establishes the characteristics of the three. The Boss is silent most of the time and complies with the young lovers' requests. However, little reactions assert his dominance and show up the insignificant position of his subordinate.

The audience can, perhaps from the very beginning, sense the danger that is likely to befall the girl; however, Sanal Kumar takes his time to play with the premonition. As the lovers enjoy themselves on a beach and savour their brush with city life, there remains a sense of impending calamity precisely because their innocence seems such an easy prey.

The premonition is confirmed when the lad learns that chaos has erupted back in the village because of the girl's sudden disappearance. The Boss now orders them not to return and to follow his instructions from here on.

The girl is not only terrified to have to put up at a shady hotel for the night, away from her mother, but she also begins to realize that she cannot trust her boyfriend. Her insecurity, the lad's helplessness and the Boss, now asserting his authority, make the audience cringe with tension.

Sanal Kumar does not rush his storytelling as he depicts the gradual transformation of both lovers’ psychology. On the other hand, the Boss’s astuteness now appears positively dangerous. His face is hardly in focus; rather his large countenance itself seems to be a threat to the young couple.

Though it is easy to predict the calamity that is going to befall the girl, the consequent narrative comes as a shock. The violated girl cannot now trust her boyfriend, who is not only unable to protect her but also goes on complying with his Boss's orders even after she is raped, because, if nothing else, he is physically weak.

At the same time, her actions begin to get governed by the societal emphasis on virginity. The film begins with an old woman telling her granddaughter the story of a prince who seeks a virgin. When he meets her in a forest and tells her he wants to make love to every inch of her body, she says she is not sure if her body belongs to her.

The violated girl cannot get over this deeply embedded teaching of society that the man who takes her virginity is the most important man in her life. She seems to blindly stumble into a daze of insanity as she begins hating her boyfriend and also cannot physically defy the powerful Boss who exercises his will on her every now and then.

The projection of insanity is not merely depicted through the girl. Along with her, the boy’s complete helplessness at protecting his girlfriend and stopping his Boss from perpetrating more heinous crimes, and the Boss’s increasingly eccentric behaviour and blatant exercises to derive masochistic pleasure create an environment that just grills the mind.

The climax is a bit predictable, yet it shows the outburst at the pinnacle of the growing insanity of the girl and her boyfriend. Both she and the frail lad are victims of patriarchy or the societal power structure.

Ajith Aacharya’s cinematography is a key element that builds each moment on screen, taking time and allowing the ambience to create palpable uneasiness in the audience’s mind. The way he has made nature an integral part of the narrative, with the visual of a gathering storm and suggesting that the vehicle is going far away from the girl’s secure zone, is enthralling.

The depiction of the act of rape by taking the camera into the haunted and solitary lanes of the deserted city instead of a graphic depiction makes room for the audience to derive multiple interpretations of the girl’s following reactions.

The visual of the morning after, when the girl wakes up and it is found that she has made beautiful designs of stones in the dead of night in a dense forest, is a powerful portrayal of the innocence that is her core nature. It is also important to note that that is the only moment in the entire narrative that she is alone, and it is only in that moment with herself that her creativity shows up.

Joju George’s performance is hard-hitting and apt. His minimalistic yet impactful performance turns him into a monster that is the face of patriarchal society.

Nimisha Sajayan’s character was undoubtedly the most challenging of the three. The entire film hinges on her expressions of a growing fear, breaking free, sensing her doom and then expressing her insanity. However, though she turns into a victim of circumstance, she continues to show her resistance, in vain. Nimisha infuses a certain power that makes her character of a schoolgirl indomitable despite what she has gone through.

Akhil Visvanadh has various shades in his character. Initially, he is a careless boy who puts his faith completely in his Boss and sets out to enjoy with his girlfriend. His growing anxiety at sensing her doom gradually transforms him into a man in distress who finds the situation gradually getting out of hand. At the same time, Akhil shows how his character turns into a symbol of resistance and discovers his power, not leaving his girlfriend even though she loses faith in him entirely.

Basil CJ’s background score could not have been more apt. The serenity of the score synchronizes with the magnanimity of nature. It also allows the shrieks of pain of both victims to echo louder within the calmness it attempts to establish.

Chola is an important film even if, or maybe because, it will make you thoroughly uncomfortable. It is also a masterclass for filmmakers who wish to make artistic movies even as they make their political stand apparent.

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