After Sexy Durga, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan is back with Chola, arguably his angriest, boldest and most sophisticated work yet. In an interview with Express, the filmmaker talks about working with actors like Joju George and Manju Warrier, the genesis of Chola, and the societal issues that still bother him.
You have worked with Joju in Chola and your next film Kayattam has Manju Warrier. Are you now in a position where you can get big names for your projects?
Everyone knows who I am and what kind of films I make. I make films for a global audience—my world is not restricted to just Malayalam, Hindi, or Tamil-speaking viewers. So if anyone shows interest in my work, I’m naturally compelled to approach them because we have mutual interests. When an actor intends to see your work, you sense a genuineness in them which brings them closer to you.
And when an interesting subject comes up, you want to approach them. Joju had seen Ozhivudivasathe Kali and we talked a lot about it. Not many who didn’t know me back then called me to discuss my film. He was one of the very few who responded. If you look beyond the popularity of Joju and Manju, you’ll see they possess an international level of artistic brilliance. They’re not only great actors but also great people.
But this being a risky subject, how did Joju approach it as a producer?
Joju is open to all kinds of cinema. He has a very good aesthetic sense. Be it him or Manju, they are very enthusiastic about the filmmaking process and working with them is an invigorating experience. People may assume I approached them for their star value, but it’s not that. Despite the despicable nature of the character he is playing in Chola, Joju had the mindset to see it as art.
Was there a proper script this time or was it an organic process?
There was a script. It was actually written many years ago and then went through several changes. The initial version, I felt, had a lot of problems. I was nobody back then and not mature enough to handle it. I didn’t understand all the nuances back then. After accumulating a wealth of experience, you get a sense that certain things could be interpreted from a one-sided perspective, given the characters’ behaviour and dialogues.
You’ve said the Suryanelli case was an inspiration for Chola. But was there anything more? The reason I ask is that I sensed a lot of anger in the film. Is there something that angers you?
The Suryanelli case was shocking to me. It happened when I was in school, and a lot of questions about the attitude of the victim and her captors popped up in my mind.
The idea of Chola stemmed from these questions. People didn’t understand certain things back then and they don’t understand it even today, which explains why some viewers responded negatively to the film. They’re not willing to analyse the psychological state that prompts this kind of behaviour. They see the female character doing something and immediately go, “That’s problematic!”
Would it be correct in saying, then, that you’re also making a statement on the institution of marriage through the film?
Yes. 90 per cent of the marriages are facilitated by the family members, even today. Once a girl turns 18 or 19, she is married off the next day, to someone she has not yet seen or interacted with. Her parents look at the man’s financial status, looks, power, family background, and then force her to marry him. There is no other communication between them whatsoever.
If she is in love with someone else, they manipulate her with threats of suicide or bodily harm. What happens between the couple after the wedding? It could be rape, and our society encourages it. Later, she begins serving him and continues to do so until her demise. And what happens when he dies? In the olden days, the girl would be forced to jump into the funeral pyre. Today, it would be an issue if she didn’t shed any tears.
Given the nature of the subject, some male filmmakers usually tend to get exploitative when depicting certain things. It’s admirable that you didn’t do it in Chola. Sometimes it’s confusing when female filmmakers shoot certain scenes with a male gaze. What’s your take on this?
Our film grammar was devised by men, and women find it difficult to comprehend. Look how some people refer to their pet as a ‘he’ even when it’s a female. Both men and women say it that way. The same thing applies to film grammar too. It will be tough to change.
You’re releasing Chola in Tamil but not in other Indian languages. Why is that?
I believe there is a little Tamil flavour in it and Tamil audiences will be able to accept and relate to it.
Any plans to make a commercial ‘mass’ film in the future?
Yes. In my own way.