Aashiq Abu's '22 F Kottayam' is a bitter, raw confrontation of a truth; a truth that we have turned our faces away from, a truth that we have pretended to be non-existent, a truth that we have kept wrapped beneath shrouds and shrouds of (pseudo) morality. The confrontation over, this truth wedges itself into your psyche with such ferocity, that you leave the theatres with a bleeding conscience, writhing in discomfort.
Tessa K Abraham (Rima Kallingal), one among the thousands of hopeful Malayali nurses in Bangalore who dream of flying abroad some day, comes across Cyril (Fahad Fazil), a Visa consultant who promises to have her flying to Canada in no time. Hailing from Kottayam, Tessa is one those girls who has got used to the ways of life in a metropolis, who reveals to Cyril that she doesn't think of nursing as a thankless profession. She's in love with her job and admits that she's the kind who was born to be a nurse. The tips are good too, she shrugs with a smile.
Oh, it's beautiful how these two souls fall in love in a city that goes about busily leading its own life, unmindful of the tiny beings that live in it. 'Tessa Visa' and 'Cyril Visa' eventually do get rid of the 'Visa' bits on their mobile contact lists, and embark on a process of discovering each other amidst hastily exchanged text messages and sms beeps, with the neon lights of the city standing witness to it all. They get drunk and fervently make love at his abode, before she decides to move in with him.
It's on this very same bed that she gets brutally raped weeks later. Rape has probably been never as painfully depicted in Malayalam films, and when it's repeated, it almost makes you nauseous. It isn't really an effortless task to sit through the ordeal that Tessa goes through, and the post-traumatic pain does not sadly limit itself to psychological strain alone. She finds herself literally torn apart, with her skull broken, fingers fractured and bite marks all over her battered body.
This is a relentless film that doesn't let you off that easily. The crime scene remains a callous reminder of the sordidness of the act. Back home with a bruised body and a shaken mind, Tessa tries to pick up the bits of her life that lie all over the place. The soiled carpets, blood stained bed sheets and broken flower pots are enough to drive Cyril insane, but Tessa looks all determined to start all over again. She wonders though if the equations between them have changed after her being raped, and when Cyril hugs her in reassurance, groans that he is hurting her with his crushing grasp.
It would be a gross injustice to label '22 F Kottayam' as a feminist film, nor does it fall into the category of a cult classic like 'Baise Moi', where there is an absolute glorification of the blood being splattered, with vengeance as a justification. It's more of an individual that is wronged in '22 F Kottayam', and that she is a woman makes her torment even worse. But there are singular issues that a woman has to deal with being discussed on a much deeper level, from seemingly trivial ones as the male stare to grave ones as sexual assault.
There are very few men in the film, and they clearly fall into the black or white categories. There is Hegde (Prathap Pothan) who has the most courteous look on his face when he asks if he can have sex with a woman. It's only later that you realize that the criminal act that he commits was not one that was done in isolation. He's a gross sexual offender who has been accused of raping an eight year old girl! There is DK (Sathar) on the other hand, who is a gentleman who admits that nothing in the world comes for free. He accepts favors from the women he love, and ensures that they have no regrets. Perhaps at the other end of the spectrum is Ravi uncle (T G Ravi), the flirtatious old man with a heart of gold, who takes a special liking for Tessa. "I think I'll miss me when I'm gone," says the septuagenarian with a smile.
The writing by Abhilash Kumar and Syam Pushkaran is undoubtedly top-notch. There is an outstanding scene in the film where the perpetrator of the crime looks Tessa straight in her face and says "Fuck You!" "Not any more...," she retorts with a smirk. I loved that scene, which however made me think of another one when she uses the term 'male organ', which stands in striking contrast to the aforementioned scene. It's one of the few plastic scenes in the film, where you wonder if Tessa, being the person that she has eventually turned out to be, would ever have thought of sophistication when using a word as that. In all probability you expect her to shout out a Malayalam expletive with a beep sound blurring it away. And I talk of these, only because this is a film that tries to tear up those conventions into shreds and show them the winds, and very rightly so.
While discussing '22 F Kottayam', I also need to mention a very special movie that I had seen last year, 'Nakharam', that was directed by Deepesh. Not many of us got to see the film in theatres, but there is a striking semblance in the climax of these two films. The respective women protagonists in these films belong to diverse cultural milieu, but the injustice that has been meted out to them is the same. Their ploys of vengeance are very much alike and both of them make mince meat (literally) of the men that had ruined their lives. More than a shock tactic at work, this is an expression (and a fierce one at that) of a repressed sense of being wronged, that surges out in all strength.
Arguments that the film turns out to be sexist at the end of it all, wouldn't really hold ground. When Tessa lands up in jail, it almost seems like the film goes off tangent for a while, but it's here that she meets the heavily pregnant Subaida, who tells her that women are born with the ultimate weapon in their hands, which is at once a boon and a curse. Wanting to kill, Tessa has no qualms of making use of that only weapon she has, and out in the real world approaches DK for help. She murmurs as she offers herself to him, that he shouldn't expect her to be Jincy, his much preferred female escort, on bed. She reminds him that she's a woman who has been raped twice, and who has spent several months in jail, accused of a crime that she never did commit.
Rima, has over the last couple of years, evolved to be an actress of exceptional caliber, and '22 F Kottayam' is undoubtedly the best we have seen from her, as yet. It's not just the intensity that she has managed to infuse into her performance that matters here. The courage that she has shown as an actor to take up a role that doesn't conform to traditions is highly commendable. That she has done absolute justice to it, is a bonus. This is an absolutely woman oriented film, and if Fahad Fazil holds ground with Rima in almost every scene in which we get to see them together, it speaks volumes of the performer that this young man is. His twitched eye brows as he corrects her faulty Malayalam pronunciation would vouchsafe this fact. Almost every other actor in the film has been perfectly cast, and their contributions praiseworthy.
Rex Vijayan and Bijibal come up with a musical score that is simply out of this world. And Shyju Khalid's fantastic frames make sure that it's a film that throws a challenge before you; one that gnaws its way right up your soul.
Big hugs, Mr. Abu for gifting us with this fighter female, 22 years old, from Kottayam. And an extra big hug for not parading her as a virgin.