Chola on Amazon: Troubling male gaze or uncomfortably realistic take on sexual violence and social conditioning?
Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's Chola, that released only in Kerala theatres in December, is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video India.
From the thick vegetation beside the road, an adolescent girl emerges. She is wearing what appears to be a school uniform and hugging what looks like a school bag. Two men have been waiting for her by a jeep. One, a gangly young fellow, is clearly excited. The other, a surly, pot-bellied chap in red track pants, seems indifferent.
As the youth rushes forward to greet her, she stops. She has just seen his companion and asks why this stranger is there. The man-boy coaxes her to board the vehicle. She reluctantly agrees.
That initial hesitation builds up almost immediately though into a sense of dread that does not once let up during Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Chola: Shadow of Water.
The film was released in Kerala theatres in December 2019. It did not, however, make it to the rest of India, despite the buzz generated by its selection for the prestigious Venice Film Festival 2019 just months earlier and the increasing pan-India popularity of Mollywood at large.
Chola is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Sasidharan’s film has just three characters: the diffident girl is Jaanu/Janaki (played by Nimisha Sajayan), her sweetheart remains unnamed (actor: Akhil Viswanath), and he addresses the older man as Aashaan, that is, Boss (Joju George). The youngsters have planned a day out together in the city, and Aashaan is giving them a lift.
All through their drive from the desolate, mist-laden mountains to a bustling metropolis, their wanderings around a sleek shopping mall and some quiet time on a beach, the feeling that something terrible will happen any moment refuses to go away.
The premonition is not sufficient preparation though for the horrors that subsequently unfold on screen or the film’s spotlight on how social conditioning governs our reactions to sexual violence.
In each of these films, a woman has her antennae constantly raised, like a beast in a jungle habituated to being preyed upon.
The male predators in all three derive pleasure from intimidating their prey. Toying with her fears is a game to him. When she recoils in anger and horror, he is amused.
The only one of these men who flees within seconds is the creep in Ozhivudivasathe Kali. He is also the only one who is open about his sexual intent from the start. If he backs off it is because the woman responds fiercely with a credible threat of physical violence.
The difference between the women is what thematically distinguishes the films from each other.
The poor cook in Ozhivudivasathe Kali is on her own, a fiery woman clearly in the habit of defending herself against men.
Durga in Sexy Durga is probably middle class. She too is assertive, instinctively wary of the approaching animals, but she also leans on her boyfriend. The two actually physically turn to each other while being harassed by the men who give them a lift.
Janaki is much younger. She is also intrinsically timid. Her beau is dense and oblivious to the reasons for her wariness of Aashaan.
Janaki’s first instinct about Aashaan is relatable, so is her ultimate rejection of the boyfriend who fails her. It is much harder to come to terms with her behaviour towards Aashaan after he assaults her: her response to this vile man swings from terror to submission to resistance to terror to submission again. At an intellectual level, I can see why she might be this way, but I still struggled to wrap my head around her character.
An indicator of the underlying reason for Janaki’s attitude comes right at the start from a folktale narrated in veteran actor KPAC Lalitha’s voice, about a prince who is advised to take the treasure from a virgin in a pristine forest to overcome his fear of war, thus proving himself capable of ruling his kingdom – the virgin believes she cannot give herself to him because she belongs to someone else, she does not know who.
This story, when juxtaposed against Janaki’s and Aashaan’s actions, speaks volumes about masculine aggression and the proprietorial attitude of men towards women in a patriarchal world, the co-option of women into patriarchy, the valuation of an unmarried woman based on whether or not she possesses a hymen, the conditioning that causes many women to subsume their identity in the identity of the man they marry and not deem themselves independent entities (if you think this is a tale of “the other” and not your social circle, think of the number of women all around who always refer to themselves as just Mrs Gupta, Mrs Khanna, Mrs Whatever – meaning, the wife of a guy with the surname Gupta/Khanna/Whatever – without a mention of their own first name).
In a conservative milieu where a woman has been brought up to think she ‘belongs’ to the man who ‘took her virginity’, how might she deal with the trauma of her own rape?
In a conversation I had with Sasidharan while writing this article, I asked him about the folktale’s role in underlining the idea that Janaki sees herself as someone’s property.
The director is loathe to pin a single interpretation on any aspect of his film but accepts that this is indeed “the kind of culture we are nurturing in the minds of female children from the beginning – somebody will come, you will be his owned, you must follow him till his death. That kind of paathivrathyam (fidelity to the husband) is there throughout Indian culture, even in the Ramayan.”
He adds: “Even now in so many cases our courts order the rapist to marry the victim as a compromise. It is not strictly legal but it happens because of the customary principles in the blood of Indian culture.”
You could see Chola’s Jaanu/Janaki literally then as a teenager torn between her dignity and social brainwashing, and surrendering to her ‘husband’; or you could interpret her as a metaphor, as Sasidharan does, deriving her name from the heroine of the Ramayan (Janaki being another name for Sita) – a child of Nature like her mythological namesake, the Nature over which men try to assert their dominance.
Janaki is also possibly a “shadow of water”, the feminine shadow of a basic natural element that takes the shape of its container when collected off the earth, is calming when still, its raging potency evident only when you wade into it or it bursts its banks and transforms into a deadly destructive force.
When Chola was premiered at Venice and on its release in Kerala, some critics – those who liked it and those who did not – assumed a Stockholm Syndrome aspect to Janaki’s equation with Aashaan. The finale in the forest got mixed reviews, with Lee Marshall of the British trade publication Screendaily calling it “problematic in its male director’s depiction of the female experience” and “a botched attempt at feminist solidarity that...inadvertently plays into the hands of forces it sets out to oppose.”
I do not think at all that Sasidharan’s gender is a factor in the effectiveness – or lack of it – of Chola’s denouement. If you watch closely enough, there is also no evidence of Stockholm Syndrome, no evidence that Janaki has developed an attachment to Aashaan. A bathing ritual at the beginning of the third act instead suggests that she has resigned herself to her fate since her boyfriend is too idiotic and too weak to support her. She is also obviously furious with him and till the end, terrified of Aashaan.
What muddied the conclusion for me was the sudden burst of loudness in an otherwise tonally quiet narrative, and a palpable shift from the gritty realism of the earlier part to a more mythical realm as the proceedings travel to a thickly wooded area beside a river, a space from which the film perhaps derives the Malayalam title Chola.
Besides, Janaki’s conduct in the closing couple of minutes requires too much of a stretch of the imagination and a deep dive into her social context to be understood. A viewer who is empathetic towards women and is convinced of Sasidharan’s good intentions based on his track record may make that effort, but I wondered why the director designed his film in such way as to open it up to an interpretation reaffirming the not-uncommon belief that every woman wants to be sexually subjugated.
When asked about this, Sasidharan reminds me of the legal-cum-social sanction for rape in traditional Indian marriages – real-life loveless marriages, I must add, that women do not leave despite the violence. He draws a parallel with Janaki’s discomfiting combination of fear, loathing and submission towards Aashaan. He admits he was aware though that far from detecting these meanings in Chola, many viewers might think he was showing Janaki eventually feeling attracted to Aashaan.
“If a person sees the film this way, then where he stands, his life experiences, his attitude to women come into it. I cannot tell him to set all that aside and watch my film,” says Sasidharan. “What I can do is, on a second viewing I can clearly point out to him, ‘look at this, if it is as you say, then would this have been like this?’ and point him in the direction of areas where I could ask such questions. If not, then either I must opt out of making the film because there is a possibility that it will be read this way, or I must make an overpowering statement in the film to entirely rule out such an interpretation. I am not interested in doing either.”
He remains unwavering in his commitment to his narrative despite the split verdict, including one angry analysis he read online that described Chola as “the director’s rape fantasy”. Sasidharan bats, not for filmmakers to tweak their scripts to ensure that they are not misunderstood, but for more open discussions on sensitive issues.
Lijo Jose Pellissery faced some flak last year for a scene in Jallikattu in which a woman calmly goes about the business of living seconds after she has been sexually assaulted. There were those who derided that episode as a normalisation of sexual violence. Thankfully this was a minority opinion, because to my mind the scene in question made an important observation about how women in reality face various forms of violence so routinely that for sheer practical reasons, as a survival mechanism, they/we most often do collect ourselves and not allow the outside world to see our inner turmoil.
Chola is making a far more philosophical point and at the first viewing I was confounded but intrigued. Having watched it thrice now, I have greater clarity about what it is trying to say, but I am still conflicted about its approach. The one shot that still bothers me has Janaki making a move as if she is about to cradle Aashaan’s head in her hands – the gesture is usually associated with tenderness and is hence, quite naturally, confusing here, although there is no sign of affection on her face.
That said, Chola also compelled me to confront the uncomfortable possibility that, despite all my liberalism, I want fictional rape survivors to be intellectually, ideologically compatible with me and that I wanted Janaki to be someone I could like and admire, instead of accepting her for who she is – an infuriating conservative. It is comparatively easy to offer empathy to the assertive cook in Ozhivudivasathe Kali or Durga who argues with her boyfriend. Janaki, meeker and apparently a traditionalist, is as much a reality as they are. In this beautifully photographed, brilliantly acted, otherwise powerful film, her final actions are needlessly oblique, but her story is no less worthy of being told.
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