How Malayalam films ‘Kappela’, ‘Ishq’ and ‘Chola’ approach sexual violence

Several rape-revenge dramas have come out, but these three recent films go beyond the usual narratives.
Actors Ann Sheetal, Anna Ben and Nimisha Sajayan
Actors Ann Sheetal, Anna Ben and Nimisha Sajayan
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Women who commit a sexual transgression on screen have usually been punished. They might be raped, killed or at the very least shamed and reformed — and the character would be considered to have “asked for it”. In the last decade, however, particularly after the Nirbhaya gangrape and murder case, the depiction of sexual violence on screen has undergone a vast change. A woman’s transgression is no longer considered a justification for sexual violence. From rape being used as a plot point for the hero to outrage about and the rape victim taking her own life unable to live with the “shame”, narratives now are placing women at the centre and reimagining victims as survivors.

This has led to several rape-revenge dramas, including the latest Netflix film Bulbbul, produced by Anushka Sharma. These films typically turn the victim into an avenging crusader who not only fights for herself but for all women. While this recasting is a welcome change from the depictions of the past, they have now become predictable. More importantly, these storylines depend on revenge to propel the plot and often fail to engage with the deep conditioning that is part of rape culture.

Here we discuss three recent Malayalam films where the female characters commit transgressions and are subjected to sexual violence, but the narrative goes beyond the usual revenge saga. All three films are written and directed by men. Spoilers ahead.

Kappela (2020)

Muhammad Musthafa’s Kappela released on Netflix recently and has blown away several avid cinema fans, including celebrities like directors Tharun Bhascker and Anurag Kashyap. However, it has also drawn criticism from a section of the audience for its gender politics.

The film is about a young woman named Jessy, played by Anna Ben, and her misadventure. Jessy lives in Poovaranmala, in the countryside of Wayanad. She has failed her Class 12 exams and her parents are looking to marry her off. Benny, a garment shop owner in the same village, is interested in her but Jessy has bigger aspirations. She accidentally dials a wrong number one day, leading her to Vishnu (Roshan Mathew), an auto driver in Malappuram. A romance blooms between the two and Jessy agrees to meet him in Kozhikode. However, it turns out that Vishnu belongs to a trafficking ring and was planning to abduct Jessy. She is saved by Roy (Sreenath Bhasi), who is initially presented to the audience as an antagonist but is actually a good man who realised what Vishnu is up to.

On the surface, Kappela is yet another damsel-in-distress story where a woman has to depend on a man to save her from a crisis; the film veers towards serving as a cautionary tale for young women about venturing out of their home and hearth. But Musthafa also makes some interesting writing choices. Although Vishnu subjects Jessy to sexual violence (he’s on the verge of raping her when Roy breaks down the door), her transgression is not turned into a justification for what happened to her. Roy does not offer her any moralistic advice, and his girlfriend who calls Jessy on the phone to comfort her also treats it lightly, telling her that such incidents do happen.

After Roy rescues Jessy, she still wants to see the ocean, which she’d seen years before when she was in school and was looking forward to seeing again with Vishnu in Kozhikode. It might seem unrealistic that a woman who was nearly raped would want to go sight-seeing just hours after the ordeal. But, there is no such thing as an ideal victim and women cope with their trauma in different ways. For Jessy, the vast, open ocean is in stark contrast to the smallness of her life; Musthafa’s writing decision to fulfil her desire underlines the fact that she does not blame herself for her choices and remains defiant.

In the final scene, we see that Benny (who is unaware of all that has happened) is still smitten by Jessy, and while Jessy enjoys his attention as she always had, she continues to remain noncommittal. The sexual violence is a bump in Jessy’s journey, not the end. She doesn’t say yes to Benny just because she’d been cheated by another man. She also doesn’t spend the rest of her life taking revenge on Vishnu (the trafficking ring is busted by the police, without Jessy’s involvement).

Kappela would have probably been a more satisfying film without the cliched damsel-in-distress trope, and if Jessy had been more in control of the situation. However, as it stands, it’s still a film that breaks away from conventional narratives, particularly as it places its very ordinary heroine in a small town where such transgressions have traditionally been presented as suicidal.

Ishq (2019)

Written by Ratheesh Ravi and Anuraj Manohar, Ishq is about a young couple — Sachi (Shane Nigam) and Vasudha (Ann Sheetal) — who go on a date that turns into a nightmare. Sachi and Vasudha are about to make out in the car when they’re interrupted by two men posing as the police and out for extortion. While one of them just wants the money, the other, Alwin (Shine Tom Chacko), also wants to sexually assault Vasudha.

The film, which is available on Amazon Prime Video, leads us into believing that it’s about moral policing but it’s actually an interesting take on toxic masculinity. Sachi knows Alwin’s intentions and suspects that he’d molested Vasudha when he was sent on an errand during their ordeal. It kills him not to know what exactly Alwin had done to his girl; he obsesses about the incident, to the extent of behaving rudely with Vasudha who simply wants to move on. Sachi makes the incident all about himself.

Finally, he tracks Alwin down and attempts to molest the latter’s wife (Leona Lishoy) in order to make Alwin reveal the details. However, it turns out that Vasudha had actually slapped Alwin and defended herself when he’d attempted to molest her in the car. Sachi is relieved that Vasudha is still “untouched” and proposes marriage to her. Vasudha, though, gives him the middle finger (literally) as a response. It’s an unexpected ending, with thumping background music, to emphasise Vasudha’s quiet victory over Sachi.

In traditional narratives, it was left to the hero to avenge a woman’s loss of “honour”. His bravado is presented in positive light and his reward is the heroine’s gratitude. In Ishq, however, Sachi comes off looking the biggest idiot in the story. Vasudha isn’t moved by his defence of her “chastity”; she’s angered by his insensitivity. The sexual violence is presented as a traumatic episode from which she’d like to move on, rather than it becoming the defining reason for her marrying Sachi.

Chola (2019)

Of the three films, Chola, written and directed by Sanal Kumar Sashidharan and streaming on Amazon Prime Video, is the most difficult to watch. Like the other two films, Chola is also about a young couple out on a day-long date that goes horribly wrong. However, while Jessy of Kappela and Vasudha of Ishq emerge relatively unscathed, Janaki (Nimisha Sajayan) of Chola undergoes extreme brutality. And she’s only a schoolgirl.

Janaki and her boyfriend, both from a small village, plan to spend the day in the city. The boyfriend (Akhil Viswanath) persuades her to get into a jeep driven by his boss, simply referred to throughout the film as ‘Asan’ (boss, played by Joju George). Janaki is instinctively afraid of Asan, but the boyfriend convinces her that nothing will happen. Eventually, the trio ends up in a lodge where Asan sends the boyfriend out on an errand and rapes Janaki. The next day, the three of them leave the lodge but Asan again takes a diversion into a forest where he repeats the violence. Curiously, Janaki obeys Asan’s instructions without question though she’s petrified of him; her anger is reserved for her boyfriend — and in a shocking turn of events, the boyfriend kills Asan and a traumatised Janaki kills the boyfriend.

Context is vital to understanding Chola. The film begins with a grandmother narrating a fable to a young girl — about a prince who’s afraid of war and bloodshed. He’s advised to venture into the forest and obtain a secret “treasure” from a virgin woman. But when he asks the woman to give herself up to him, she is confused because she doesn’t know to whom she “belongs”. At the end of the film, after we watch the horror unfold, Sanal brings us back to the frame story and the same question — to whom does the woman belong?

The boyfriend has no name; he’s not even worthy of being called anything. The boss is called boss (and Joju George would make a good Ravanan). The schoolgirl, however, is named after Janaki, the queen of Ayodhya who had to undergo a trial by fire to prove her chastity in the Ramayana. While Janaki pays a huge price for her transgression unlike Jessy and Vasudha, Chola questions the fundamentally patriarchal idea of a woman and her body belonging to a man because he has touched her sexually.

In the film, when the boyfriend comes back from his errand, he sees that there’s a bloodstain on the bed and Janaki is sobbing naked in the bathroom. The bloodstain is not only to suggest that Janaki has been raped; it also ties into the fable about the prince who’s afraid of blood (and therefore ignorant of what the virgin’s “treasure” could be) and explains Janaki’s actions that follow. 

In between, the boyfriend tries to console her by “magnanimously” offering to marry her once they go back, but Janaki barely listens to him. Because Asan has raped her, she believes that he must own her even as her mind screams against the proposition. The idea is repugnant, but it’s very much a part of our social reality. Rape victims have even been asked by courts if they wish to marry their rapist.

Chola is an uncomfortable watch, and even more so because it denies the viewer the wish fulfilment we’ve come to expect in such films. In typical rape-revenge dramas, Janaki would have killed Asan herself and either dumped the boyfriend or gone home with him. But it’s all wrong here — she kills the “saviour” boyfriend after he kills the rapist. Because, Sanal seems to say, she doesn’t know that she needn’t be owned by anyone.

None of the films have a straightforward hero — in Kappela, the hero and the villain exchange places in the end; in Ishq, the hero becomes an idiot; in Chola, there is no hero at all. The women characters, too, don’t behave in predictable ways. They exert their agency within a realistic framework, neither the victim nor the avenger all through.

What’s also common to all three films is that they’ve been hotly debated by viewers — are they really progressive narratives or do they only appear to be so? This is because all three films lend themselves to multiple interpretations and are more layered than the black and white depictions of sexual violence. And that’s what makes them stand apart from the usual rape-revenge dramas where the viewers don’t have to challenge themselves at all.

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