Chola Movie Review: Raw, sublime and hauntingly powerful
The film feels like a more potent extension of the themes and ideas Sanal Kumar Sasidharan put forth in Ozhivudivasathe Kali and Sexy Durga
Early in Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's Chola, there is an overhead shot of a jeep navigating a hairpin bend. The image evokes a coiled serpent, which can be used to describe Joju George's nameless character in the film, who is referred to as only 'master' by a nameless youngster (Akhil Viswanath). The former is driving the jeep carrying the latter and his schoolgoing girlfriend Janaki (Nimisha Sajayan). The couple has eloped without their relatives' knowledge. When they find out, the driver becomes an agent of chaos and it turns into a road trip from hell.
Director: Sanal Kumar Sasidharan
Cast: Joju George, Nimisha Sajayan, Akhil Viswanath
Being with the 'driver' is akin to being trapped in a cage with a serpent in hibernation mode. It can wake up at any moment and strike you, and you are constantly dreading that moment. The film can be best described using a quote by Mexican author Cesar A Cruz: "Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable." Chola is that kind of art — dread-inducing and cathartic in equal measure. Sanal seems to share with filmmaker David Fincher the penchant for making films that scar. Chola creates more scars than any of Sanal's previous films. It's also his most polished work. The aesthetics of Chola is pleasing even though the images are unpleasant.
Nature plays a big part in the film and it is caught in an upset state when the film begins. These nature shots are reminiscent of those from Kaneto Shindo's Onibaba — another film about one gender dominating the other, but in reverse. There is a lot of anxiety-inducing stillness. When movement occurs, it only makes things more unsettling. There are a lot of unbroken shots that make you increasingly claustrophobic as things get progressively worse. The pre-interval portions are, in a good way, some of the most suffocating moments put to film. The setting — presumably a mix of Munnar, Ooty, and Athirapally — is heavily cold, mist-laden and windy. The first wide-angle shot of the jeep's headlights piercing through the mist reminded me of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon A Time In Anatolia. Like Ceylan does in all his films, Sanal occasionally makes us observe characters from afar. You get a feeling from very early on that something terrible is going to happen somewhere; after it happens, you feel the weight slowly loosening from your chest, until you find yourself overwhelmed by a different kind of weight which will leave you (or not) only after the film ends. Chola arrives at a time when similar incidents are being reported in the news and it feels apt to release a film that holds a mirror to society.
Chola feels like an extension of the themes and ideas Sanal put forth in Ozhivudivasathe Kali and Sexy Durga. If seen as a trilogy, Chola is the most potent of the three. In all three films, a woman is put through an extremely uncomfortable ordeal by a group of men. In Chola, there are multiple instances where Janaki feels unsafe even in places that are supposed to be private for a woman. Sanal takes us through several images where the male gaze establishes its authority even in women-friendly places such as a textile shop. Take the image of Joju standing in the middle of nude female mannequins and contrast this with the image of Janaki noticing the crude graffiti of a nude woman in a makeshift roadside toilet. And what does it mean when she is smiling at a skimpily-clad woman dancing inside a busy shopping mall? You are subjected to a plethora of conflicting emotions. I also found the use of dogs as a recurring motif interesting. When Janaki is first introduced she is followed by a 'bodyguard' dog which growls at an unseen force behind her. Later, two different dogs appear in two different portions. I'm sure this will be the subject of many debates.
Is Chola a female empowerment film? I don't think so. Never once did I feel like Sanal was taking sides. Both genders are depicted as flawed and powerless, even when there is a sudden shift of power. The twisted sexual dynamics are reminiscent of a Kim-ki Duk or a David Lynch film. It goes without saying that Joju is absolutely fantastic as this extremely creepy man who remains hauntingly nonchalant even after doing all the things that he does towards the film's second half. I couldn't help but think of Mammootty's Bhaskar Patelar in Vidheyan. Joju is capable of freaking you out without even asking the sort of uncomfortable questions that Patelar asked Thommy. There is a certain moment where I wanted to escape the strong tension generated by him when he and Janaki are alone in a room together. In a way, Chola can be seen as a good companion piece to Vidheyan. Like that film, Chola is also about ownership and the sudden, inexplicable subservience some people subject themselves to. And as the 'slave', Akhil puts on a very impressive show for a first-timer.
Need I say how brilliant Nimisha is? Chola affirms the fact that she is one of the finest actors in contemporary Malayalam cinema. She is getting better and better with each film. It's no surprise then that she is being flooded with many interesting offers right now. As the naive schoolgirl who experiences possibly some of the worst coming-of-age moments that any girl can go through, Janaki's pain is searingly tangible. There is a particularly disorienting post-interval moment which, once it gets over, you let out a huge sigh of relief — the "it can't get any worse than that" sigh. So when a similar moment happens again, you're prepared to deal with it.
Though Chola revolves only around three characters, Sanal and his remarkably gifted cinematographer Ajith Acharya shoot the film in a way that treats the viewer as a fourth character. It's so refreshing to follow a group of sublimely raw actors who are unafraid to show the world their physical imperfections. I don't think Chola would be as good with a different set of actors.
This is an unsettling film, sure, but in being so, it is, just like Moothon and Jallikattu before it, a much-welcome relief if you're tired of seeing a lot of sugar-laden films lately.