Sanal Kumar Sasidharan belongs to a new breed of experimental indie voices that has reshaped Malayalam-language cinema over the past decade. Two of his films, Ozhivudivasathe Kali (2015) and Sexy Durga (2017), form the lineup of “Making Waves: A New Generation of Indian Independent Filmmakers,” a MoMA series about Indian non-mainstream cinema that offers a panoramic view of the nation’s language heterogeneity.
In Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s films, the storyline, structure and characters mostly adorn a simplistic façade at first glance, but the illusive narratives gradually reveal thematic complexities and the protagonists’ layered personalities. His last feature, A’hr (2020), also charts a deceptively minimalist plot wherein a middle-aged woman from Kerala, Maya (Manju Warrier), and her younger male friend climb the Himalayas with a group of trekkers. As they progress, the film examines the voyeuristic nature of two male trekkers, also from Kerala, one of whom stalks Maya incessantly.
Voyeurism, male chauvinism and the objectification of women are some of the recurring themes in Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s works. For instance, in An Off-Day Game, a group of middle-aged married men get together for a farmhouse booze party on an election holiday in Kerala. Over time, the darkness in their hearts begins to take shape, and they begin lusting after a maid. One of the characters proclaims that men are entitled to take resisting women by force. In long takes, Sasidharan juxtaposes such misogynistic remarks with heated arguments amongst the men, building tension in his screenplay. The impending release takes place later when another guy from the group attempts to grab the maid’s hand in an inebriated state, but he is pushed away by her, resulting in an ego blow.
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Even in Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s most acclaimed film, Sexy Durga, which became the first Indian movie to win the Hivos Tiger Award at International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), he examines sexist attitudes, moral policing and the male gaze as a runaway couple frighteningly encounters various men through a single night. The majority of the film unfolds in a minivan full of petty thugs who have offered the couple a lift. The claustrophobia and anxiety experienced by the protagonists, especially the female, is made palpable by Sasidharan, who frequently intercuts between the intimidating men and the harrowed couple, while the former engage in loud-mouthed, callous and toxic banter. The film’s controversial title alludes to the hypocrisy of India’s patriarchal society, which worships the female form as Goddess Durga while relegating real-life women to being mere objects of pleasure and convenience. Sexy Durga was banned by the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting from being screened at the International Film Festival of India in 2017. Sasidharan channeled his frustration through his next highly creative venture, Unmadiyude Maranam (2019), which is set in a dystopian future where dreaming without permission is declared illegal and anti-national, leading to an emergency-like situation in which a black market is created for forbidden visions.
Sanal Kumar Sasidharan is fond of conveying the insignificance of egoistic power plays in the face of nature’s grandiosity. The director invokes nature most effectively in his disturbing fifth feature, Shadow of Water (2019), which revisits the dread of a traveling couple as a female is put through a highly uncomfortable ordeal by an accompanying male. The seemingly calm demeanor of the third protagonist parallels the serenity of the cold, mist-laden and windy hills their jeep navigates. But like the brewing storm, his eerie silence and penetrating gaze foreshadow an imminent calamity. Like in Sexy Durga, the deserted lanes amidst the dark sky accentuate the spooky ambience and heighten Sasidharan’s grip over suspense and horror. Although A’hr similarly digs into the shallow male psyche, it moves beyond the socio-anthropological structure to traverse a transcendental realm paralleling the ascent of 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 Sasidharan’s crowdfunded second feature, Oraalppokkam (2014), a film in which the female protagonist is also named Maya. Both meditative works surrealistically portray the characters’ quest for happiness and identity through relationships. Sasidharan tries to drive home the point that what we perceive as reality is nothing but an illusion/maya.
For A’hr, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan and his team developed a new language called A’hr Samsa to vocalize the unfathomable subtext. The title translates to “Kayattam” in Malayalam, which translates to “climb” or “ascent” in English. Through a group of free-spirited gypsies who frequently sing in the phonetic language, Sasidharan conveys the idea that these indigenous people have overcome maya — the earthly 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.
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One of the most popular actresses in Malayalam cinema, Manju Warrier, delivers a charismatic and nonchalant performance in A’hr as Maya. The performer’s playful expressions and subtle gaze evoke a mysterious aura around her character. The actress, who also serves as a co-producer of the project, looks entirely at ease in the rough terrains while enduring the inclement weather. The pristine wilderness of the Himalayas is lensed so beautifully that I was surprised to learn that the entire film was shot on an iPhone XS Max. The cinematographer, Chandru Selvaraj, used a video camera stabilizer cage rig to achieve steadiness in the images. Sasidharan, who also dons the sound designer hat for A’hr, relied on the stimulating natural sounds of water gushing over rocks and raindrops gently pouring down to create a riveting soundscape.
For its unconventional narrative and experimental filmmaking approach, A’hr won the first-ever Disruptor in Cinema award last year at the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne. Despite featuring a commercial movie star, it’s commendable that Sanal Kumar Sasidharan didn’t compromise his vision of making a trippy film with psychedelic visuals and an abstract ending that defies the norms of mainstream cinema. His latest movie, Quarrel, had its world premiere recently at the International Film Festival of South Asia and finds the philosophical filmmaker revisiting favored themes of ego and inner transformation. With contemporary independent filmmakers like Sanal Kumar Sasidharan and his lot who stay true to their singular vision and distinctive voice, the rising new wave of Indian cinema looks set to grow bigger and stronger in the near future.
Arun A.K. (@arunusual) is a communications professional based in Mumbai, India. He feels indebted to MUBI for renewing his interest in cinema and also helping him explore the world of experimental cinema. Besides writing about films, Arun likes to occasionally dabble in creative writing as well.