'A'hr (Kayattam)': Analysing the Male Gaze in Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's Films
'A'hr (Kayattam)' and the take down of male gaze in Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's films
In Malayalam filmmaker Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's films, the storyline and structure mostly appear to be simple and so do the characters at first glance. It is only as the narratives unfold that we begin to discover the complexities in their themes and the layered personalities of the protagonists. Sanal's latest and sixth feature, A'hr (Kayattam), also charts a deceptively minimalist plot where a middle-aged woman, Maya (Manju Warrier), and her younger male friend climb the Himalayas with a group of trekkers. But as the screenplay progresses, the film starts to unravel the voyeuristic nature of a couple of male trekkers from Kerala, one of whom incessantly stalks Maya.
Voyeurism, male chauvinism, and the objectification of women are motifs that cut across Sanal's filmography.
For instance, in Ozhivudivasathe Kali (An Off-Day Game, 2015), a group of middle-aged married men get together for a booze party at a farmhouse during an election holiday in Kerala. As time passes, the darkness in their real nature begins to take shape and we see them lecherously gazing at and flirting with the maid who is cooking food for them. While drinking, one of them even proclaims that men are entitled to take women by force if the latter resist. Later in the film, when another guy from the group attempts to grab the maid's hand in an inebriated state, he is pushed away by her, resulting in his ego taking a beating.
Even in his most acclaimed film, Sexy Durga, which became the first Indian film to win the Hivos Tiger Award at the 2017 International Film Festival Rotterdam, Sanal examines sexist attitudes, moral policing, and the male gaze, as a runaway couple frighteningly encounter various men through the night.
The controversial title of the film alludes to an attack on the hypocrisy of our patriarchal society which worships the female form as Goddess Durga but in reality degrades women as mere objects of pleasure and convenience.
In retaliation to the I&B Ministry banning the film from being screened at the International Film Festival of India, the rebellious filmmaker vented out his anger through his next highly creative venture, Unmadiyude Maranam (Death of Insane, 2019), which is set in a dystopian future where dreaming without permission is declared illegal and anti-national, leading to an Emergency-like situation where a black market is created for forbidden visions.
In his disturbing fifth feature, Chola (2019), the auteur would revisit the dread of a travelling couple as the female is put through an extremely uncomfortable ordeal by an accompanying male stranger. Although A'hr (Kayattam) too brings forth the shallow male psyche, it moves beyond the socio-anthropological structure to traverse the transcendental realm paralleling the ascent of the lush mountains by the group of trekkers. The lyrical film explores the philosophical theme of maya (illusion) and brahman (divine power) and is sort of an extension of Sanal's crowdfunded maiden feature, Oraalppokkam (Six Feet High, 2014), whose female protagonist was also named Maya. Both the meditative films surrealistically portray their characters' quest for happiness and identity through relationships. Sanal tries to drive home the point that what we perceive as reality is nothing but an illusion/maya.
For A'hr (Kayattam), the filmmaker and his team also developed a new language called A'hr Samsa, to vocalise subtext in the film that could be unfathomable. A'hr means kayattam in Malayalam, which translates to climb/ascent in English. Through a group of free-spirited gipsies (part of the trekking group) who frequently sing in the phonetic language, Sanal conveys the idea that these indigenous people have overcome maya - the emotions of joy and sorrow. They travel without any baggage, emotional or physical. The 10 A'hr Samsa songs in the film (composed by Ratheesh Eettillam) mark each level of the climb in one's spiritual journey, and form a crucial role in propelling the narrative forward.
One of the most popular actors in Malayalam cinema, Manju Warrier as Maya delivers a charismatic nonchalant performance. She succeeds in evoking a mysterious aura around her character in the film.
The actress, who also serves as a co-producer of the project, looks completely at ease in the rough terrains enduring the inclement weather. Also, the pristine wilderness of the Himalayas has been captured so beautifully that it came as a surprise to know that the entire film was shot completely on an iPhone XS Max. Cinematographer Chandru Selvaraj used a video camera stabiliser cage filmmaking rig for steady images. Sanal, who also dons the hat of the sound designer for the film, uses the stimulating natural sounds of water gushing over rocks and raindrops gently pouring down to create a riveting soundscape.
With an unconventional narrative and experimental filmmaking approach, it isn't surprising that A'hr (Kayattam) won the first 'Disruptor in Cinema' award at the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne, recently. Despite having a huge star, it is heartening to see Sanal not compromising on his vision of making a trippy film with psychedelic visuals and an abstract ending that defies the norms of commercial cinema. The film is expected to get a theatrical or OTT release soon. Currently, Sanal is working on new scripts and the post production of Vazhakku (Quarrel). The upcoming film explores once again the theme of an individual and his interactions with the world.
(Arun A.K. writes on films and contributes to several publications. He tweets at @arunusual.)
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