Teenager Janaki runs off from her remote village without the knowledge of her mother, for a full day to spend with her boyfriend, in the city. Happens pretty much often, one would guess, especially in a conservative milieu where it is nigh impossible for young lovers to meet freely.But then here’s the twist to the tale.
Along with her boyfriend, comes his boss, a dark, brooding middle aged man who speaks very less and yet his presence feels ominous. All throughout the trip that they undertake, the girl is very uncomfortable and instinctively resists the idea of going. But she is finally convinced by her cheerful boyfriend that there is nothing to worry about.
Chola: Shadow Of Water, made in Malayalam by director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan was one of the most talked about regional films of 2019 that was also the toast of international festivals.
Currently showing on Amazon Prime with sub-titles, it is a film that will make you think and question your notions of feminity, virginity and how society may perceive the role of a woman. You will of course have your own reading of this film, as intended by the director, who is no stranger to originality and taking the road less travelled, as exhibited in his earlier films.
From the start of the movie, we feel fear and a sense of the ominous as the opening scene itself sets the tone by narrating the fable of a prince seeking a virgin girl, to overcome his fear of war. We know that something similar will follow, in this film too.
We then see the innocent virgin Janaki, played fabulously by Nimisha Sajayan, getting all perturbed on seeing the portly boss of her boyfriend volunteering to host the lovers for their day out.
Set in some amazing locales, this is a film that you need to watch, without being rushed or any preconceived notions because everyone will have their own individual interpretations of it.
The music, the brilliant cinematography adds to the effect of a film that is at times slow paced in its story telling and yet conveys the mood of the three protagonists, aptly.
This a unique film with some great performances and no attempt at glamourisation and it will please (I must say this), not the masses, but a niche and a thinking audience.
You can feel the fear and the sense of subsequent tragedy that is awaiting the innocent teenager but still not prepared for the way, in which the director unfolds his vision and takes us step by step to the denouement.
And then the rape. Not once. Twice.
How it happens, where it happens. How a frightened teenager deals with it. What happens post that, is why you should watch it. And also, the mind numbing climax, that I will leave you to imagine for now, until you actually watch the film.
A cinematic and intellectual marvel, director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan answers some questions below to throw light on what many people have found perplexing about the film.
Qs and As
I’ve seen the film and must say, it is a very disturbing slice of reality…
For me, it is like a poem which has an enormous scope for interpretation. If the reader wants simply to sing it loud they can do it, if they want to meditate it in silence they can also do it. But unfortunately most of the people approach a movie with this simplistic idea that a movie is a vehicle to transport some messages from its maker. For me it is different. Films, particularly art-films are a journey to nowhere in search of an indefinite answer. If you enjoy that journey, every footstep is a destination. Every foot step is a quest for an answer. If you are just looking for the destination or a definite answer at the end, you will fail to enjoy the beauty of that journey and end up in despair.
What is the core idea behind this film? How did it germinate?
The seed of this film came into my mind years back when I was watching an interview of poet and author, Kamaladas. I remember that she was referring to an infamous custodial rape case called “Suryanelli rape case”. In that incident, a minor girl was lured by her lover and taken away from her village. Later she was raped by 37 men over a period of 40 days. Some of the accused were highly influential in society. When the girl returned, her parents filed a police case. The question we heard loudly then was, “why didn’t this girl try to escape? and was she enjoying the rape?”. Even the court resonated the same doubt. The poet was referring to the social stigma associated with sexual offences and the way female children are nurtured in our culture so that they can’t think about an escape. Either they follow their fate or commit suicide if they had undergone a sexual violence. This was the core idea, which prompted me to think about this movie.
Please elaborate on the movie title ‘Chola.’
“Chola” is a word with multiple meanings in Malayalam. It means either a small waterfall or a wetland with a lot of canopy. Both are connected to water and we wrote the title in such a way that it can be read or confused to be read as “ChOra”, meaning blood. So altogether it is related to the content of the movie.
There is absolutely no attempt at glamourisation of the characters.
Either in looks or clothes? Do you think that is an unnecessary element in a film?
Basically I don’t believe in glamourisation if it does not demand. For me the subject, the treatment and the performance are the three elements which are crucial to a film. We had some untouched locations and great performances from Joju George, Nimisha Sajayan and Akhil Visvanath. So there was no need for glamourisation. But I am not against glamourisation or using any other such technique to make a film attractive or compelling if it demands.
Chola is not a film which demands this.
Which locations was this film shot at and how long did it take?
Chola was shot in different locations in Kerala. The village portion was shot in Vagamon hills, city in Eranakulam and forest are in Thommankuthu near Thodupuzha in Idukki district. I think that we finished the film in 20-22 days immediately before the floods in 2018.
What or who are your cinematic influences?
I am a big fan of Krystof Kieslowsky and Michael Haneke. And I grew up watching films of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, K G George, Bharathan and Padmarajan who are still the great directors in Malayalam. I consider reality as the most fascinating and engrossing element in our life. Fiction becomes impressive when it is presented as reality. That’s why I try to be realistic as far as I can.
What were the reactions to the film?
The World Premiere of Chola was in the Venice film festival last year (2019). Since then I am getting a lot of different kinds of readings and discussions on this film. I am so happy that it has not finished till date. In fact, the discussions are becoming more and more intense when it gets older. That is a good sign with regard to a film. It is a sign that the film has the capacity to withstand time. Art is always tested by time.
Plans for the future? Your next project?
I have finished one more film after Chola. The title is A’hr (Kayattam). This is the first time I am associating with Manju Warrier, a great artist from mainstream cinema in Malayalam. We shot the film in the peaks of Himalaya and I am happy about the outcome.