'Chithha' review: A sensitive, powerful film that breaks conventional rules of heroism

This film about sexual abuse does a grand job of standing by its women and asking tough questions to its men.
A still from the film Chittha. (Videograb)
A still from the film Chittha. (Videograb)

How quickly, and efficiently director Arun Kumar creates immersion. He utilises the opening credits to show us hand-drawn portraits that give us a glimpse of the relationship between a chiththappa and his niece. He uses an exchange between them (“Chitha usuru enga?”) to show us how the depth of their bond is a topic of casual conversation among them. Above all, Arun is careful to establish the reality of his fictitious world. He does this by making sure that no character looks out of place, by making sure that no important detail is neglected. If a woman walks into a public toilet that has just been watered, he ensures that we see the wet footprints she leaves while she’s walking out. Many such little touches ensure that we are in no doubt that this is a real place with real people.

For all these realistic details, the film has a poetic quality too, the kind that can perhaps only exist in cinema. When Easwaran (Siddharth) has just met Shakti (Nimisha), the film signals romantic intent through the shot of her bicycle falling on his motorbike. In another film, this might have felt like forced symbolism, but Chittha avoids this by not reducing the bicycle for use in this shot alone. Like with poetry, there are metaphors too. In this film about the killing of innocents, we see fish in aquariums, chicks that are painted for easy sales… When a little girl gets into trouble, she’s trying to catch another animal that signals innocence and unbridled joy: a deer. It’s the film asking us to see that the children, the little girls, should be prancing around like deers, but aren’t.

Quietly, very quietly, it makes us take note of the problems. The men, of course. But there's also the addiction to smartphones and games. There are parents who use impersonal distractions to keep children at bay. Even the image of an evil man with holy ash on his forehead and an excuse for a pilgrimage is its own commentary, I suppose. Arun Kumar’s wonderfully sensitive eye for people and behaviour comes through in many ways in this film. A girl instinctively looks for a guardian figure in the presence of a stranger, but a game on a phone is enough to break her instincts. You see, she has already been trained at home for it. In another scene, a mother instinctively beats up her kid, but a few hours later, she’s sleepless and remorseful after her daughter is asleep, her tears all dried up. Even a not-so-important policewoman shows personality and spunk. Eeswaran’s friend is almost as important as Eeswaran himself.

Chithha starts off like one of those slow-burning relationship dramas, but without warning, turns into a heart-stopping thriller. Do you remember that famous scene in The Lovely Bones, in which the girl protagonist comes awfully close to being caught by a paedophile? This film has many moments that create as much anxiety and dread. Arun Kumar also uses the element of surprise to great effect in this film. Every screenwriter sets out to surprise, to catch the viewer unawares, but so rarely does it work, while also feeling organic. Chithha is full of surprises, pleasant and dark, satisfying and terrifying. It’s in the nature of crime thrillers to play around with the identity of the criminal, and Chithha does this too, but where in another film, this might feel like a trope, here, it also serves as a damning indictment of men—to go along with its central theme.

This film about sexual abuse does a grand job of standing by its women and asking tough questions to its men. Impressively, this isn’t accomplished with convenient, long monologues. Passing, biting comments do fine too. Like when Eeswaran and Sakthi are in a loud argument and a stranger comes in to save her. I laughed out loud when Sakthi asked, “Neenga uththaman dhaane?” In a film with Eeswaran getting slapped more than once, this slap rang the loudest. Towards the end, a striking image has Eeswaran on his knees, almost as if he, a sinner, were begging for deliverance from Sakthi.

So, no, Eeswaran isn’t a conventional hero figure at all. In fact, this film toys with him—and consequently, us. Each time Eeswaran is primed for a hero redemption angle, director Arun Kumar laughs in his face. In fact, he goes a step further and takes the opportunity to torment him further. The courageous writing simply refuses to succumb to the usual tropes. There’s a scene in which the bad man warms up for a horrific act—and all the while, trained as we are by hero narratives, we wait and wait for the hero to step in to save the day, but Chithha simply isn’t that kind of film, and this refusal adds much integrity to the storytelling, given that the perpetrators are men in the first place. What a fantastic choice then that the film’s most heroic moment should come not from Eeswaran but from a strange woman who appears for not more than one scene. It reminded me of that scene in another Arun Kumar film, Sethupathi, in which a kid with a gun is enough to send gangsters packing. Much like in that film, here too, Arun Kumar plays with perceptions concerning the protagonist. Who is Eeswaran? How does his friend view him? How does his sister-in-law judge him? What about his girlfriend? Does anyone get him more than his beloved niece does? Above all, the big question the film asks and answers is: When does Eeswaran truly become a hero?

Siddharth is due much credit and respect not just for embracing the character of this unusual protagonist, but also for delivering a career-best performance full of sensitivity and vulnerability. One of my favourite scenes in the film is of him searching for his niece when his friend plants a doubt in his head that could destroy everything. Siddharth, as Eeswaran, pauses for a second, almost buying into the darkness, before light floods in, and he believes in his mission once again. It’s one of many moments in this film when great writing combines with invested performance. Nimisha Sajayan, even if not necessarily in the thick of things always, does so much more than she should be able to. Give her a small scene and her eyes ensure it becomes a lot more than on the paper. Perhaps the biggest challenge in this film that is full of earnest performances, must have been to draw such compelling acting from the child actors. You know how even in good cinema, the notes of child actors sometimes ring false, but we allow them to slide by? No such problem in Chithha; the child actors are wonderful too.

For the kind of darkness in this film, the eventual catharsis could have easily slipped into melodrama, but Arun Kumar isn’t interested in drawing emotional reactions from you in expected easy ways. For instance, when Eeswaran talks to a survivor of sexual abuse, she doesn’t immediately confide in him. She finds his touch repulsive, and since she won’t talk about what happened to her, we are left waiting. And then, as she walks away, we see her limping a bit, and that was enough to shatter my heart into a million pieces—somewhat, I suppose, like the glass shards Eeswaran uses to forge a rather unique weapon. Be it the idea of this knife or the craftiness and depravity of the film’s villain, it’s clear that if Arun Kumar shunned the light of these films and was submerged in darkness, he would be great at that sort of cinema too. This is clearly a filmmaker who has the talent to excel at many types of cinema—and with Chittha, he delivers what’s my favourite film of the year yet.

Director: SU Arun Kumar
Cast: Siddharth, Nimisha Sajayan, Anjali Nair, Sahasra Shree

Rating: 4/5

(This story originally appeared on cinemaexpress.com)

Related Stories

No stories found.

The New Indian Express