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Venice Film Festival 2019 – ‘Chola’ (‘Shadow of water’) violently tackles India gender issues

Venice Film Festival 2019 – ‘Chola’ (‘Shadow of water’) violently tackles India gender issues

Director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan speaks to acv about his hard-hitting drama in which three people wind up in a bad way because of how they think about the other…

CHALLENGING, powerful, and rather unpredictable, ‘Chola’ (‘Shadow of Water’) is a tremendous film for those who want to be made uncomfortable and forced to think about what a woman’s place is in our world.

It’s certainly not for the squeamish and if you’re looking for easy viewing, stay well clear.

More seriously, director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, from the southern Indian state of Kerala, is very much hoping his film, which had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival yesterday (September 2), will stir debate and inquiry – in some it will spark fury and deep distaste.

Akhil Vishwanath and Nimisha Sajayan (Janaki) in ‘Chola

“I am really looking forward to the reactions.

“I am not sure about it, when you say it is ‘challenging’, but audiences like experimentation and a change in the mode of storytelling,” Sasidharan ventured just before the premiere of his film in Venice.

This is ultra-realism filled with raw emotions and a menace which was also present in his previous internationally award-winning ‘Sexy Durga/S Durga’) in 2017.

However, ‘Chola’ is more accomplished, and contains more violence and is rather more obvious about male physical power over women. The cinematography by Ajith Aacharya saves it from being unrelentingly grim.

Director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan

The power dimensions between men and women very much lie at the heart of ‘Chola’ and it has some uncompromising things to say about gender relations and inequality.

In some ways, ‘Chola’ is very shocking – and not easily forgotten – and that exhibits the strength of a film.

Without giving too much away – you’ll find yourself asking how and why, about the way Janaki (Nimisha Sajayan) responds to her situation.

“It’s about a certain mentality,” explained Sasidharan. “That mentality is the product of social nurturing. Society moulds our girls by imposing a lot of morality issues on them.”

In essence, he suggests they become a battlefield for other men and their competing moralities.

At one simple level, Chola is an elopement drama.

Nimisha Sajayan in Venice (Janaki in ‘Chola‘)

Janaki is a rather innocent, sheltered, impressionable girl or young woman, and is drawn away by a young, unnamed character, (Akhil Viswanath), simply known as ‘Janaki’s lover’ from the production notes.

It isn’t altogether clear it’s an elopement either, Sasidharan leaves that ambiguous – Akhil Vishwanath’s character doesn’t really have a plan and it may not be any more developed than stealing a few hours away from the vicinity with Janaki. Let’s call Janaki’s lover, Akhil.

However, for them to get away, Akhil has to rely on ‘Boss’ (Joju George), a physically imposing character who’s a piece of work – but that comes out later.

Joju George (‘Boss’) in Chola

In the beginning, it’s all quite innocent and playful to a point, after Janaki expresses some reservations and superficial doubts – but matters take a steep turn when they have to check into a horribly ramshackle and decrepit guest house.

From here on in, the story really takes shape and doesn’t let up.

“Girls don’t really know their rights,” suggested Sasidharan. Moreover, even if they know them, they are not always able to express them well or well enough is the initmation.

“They can be exposed to some kind of violence and it can totally change their mindsets. I’ve seen this happen in real life,” added Sasidharan.

Akhil Vishwanath (Janaki lover)

He has talked about how ‘Chola’ is set against the backdrop of the Kerala Suryanelli Hills rape case of 1996, when a schoolgirl eloped with a bus conductor, believing he loved her – only to be taken advantage of by 30 men, return home and let her father take up a criminal case. Some of the men involved were upstanding members of the community but still many heaped the blame on the girl and suggested her lack of struggle was because she didn’t find her situation that bad, and had to accept she had misbehaved by eloping in the first place.

Sasidharan said the lack of sympathy and understanding just adds to the girls’ torment.

“They can’t come back into mainstream life – it’s very tough for them. I think we should be compassionate.”

It doesn’t help that in Indian law, a man charged with rape can be excused, if he agrees to marry his victim.

Sasidharan said this kind of thinking is deeply embedded and has to be confronted and challenged.

Men’s power over women is practically absolute.

“Many people confuse lovemaking with rape – they believe they have the right to impose their authority on their wife – it is socially accepted and the wife always has to succumb to that power.”

He accepts his film isn’t going to lead everyone to change their behaviour immediately or that women will simply assert themselves more and men will understand and appreciate them differently.

“I am hopeful there is an audience that will understand ‘Chola‘ – and that many questions will come out of it – that is very important. Our cinema works in intellectual circles, with questions, studies and theories, and then it penetrates into the lower strata of society and reaches into the common people.”

For Sasidharan then, film critics and campaigners have a role to play in shifting the dial on gender relations in India with films such as ‘Chola‘ helping.

Perhaps Janaki’s passivity and her unusual attachment to her attacker suggest something has gone deeply awry in our gender relations – this isn’t just about India, but about male power in general.

“I understand that in Kerala, about five to six per cent of women are highly independent, but most are passive and ruled by either family morality or social morality and are not able to assert themselves.

“Maybe by the age of 30, after marriage and kids, they are – but by then their (independent) lives are lost,” Sasidharan suggested, slightly tongue-in-cheek to acv’s question about Janaki being too passive and accepting of her horrible fate.

Venice Film Festival continues (August 28-September 7):

Pictures: (Venice) foto ASAC La Biennale di Venezia

Venice Gallery – click ro enlarge, use arrows to navigate…

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture