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|July 15, 2000||
True to his mindset -- which has, in the past, resulted in strong, women-oriented films that smash accepted stereotypes (like Alicinte Anweshanam and Mankamma) -- Susanna deals with an unconventional, even daring, theme.
Susanna (Vani Viswanath) is the lover of the son of a rich planter. Since her father's consent is impossible to obtain, the two run away, aided and abetted by Susanna's parents.
The planter intervenes. Pleads with Susanna to let his son make a more politically -- and economically -- correct marriage. And takes charge of Susanna's life. In time -- very little time -- she succumbs to the lust of the ageing planter. And later, to his friends.
Society brands her a prostitute.
Mired in muck, Susanna breaks free. Not by running away, or committing suicide, or throwing herself into the arms of some magnanimous hero. But by using her feminity, her softness, as her shield. In time, the relationship transforms itself -- it is no longer Susanna's body that the planter and his ageing friends depend on, but her essential woman-ness. Susanna transforms herself into their friend, their nurse, teacher and guide -- and does it so well that soon, they find that they cannot live without her.
Even this relationship is misunderstood, vilified. Secretly, many -- including a Christian priest -- yearn for her. In public, they crucify her. Or seek to -- but the planter intervenes, even from his deathbed, leaving his enormous fortune to her out of gratitude and, yes, love.
It would have been easy, stereotypical, for the director at this stage to have Susanna accept the fortune and live, rich and welcomed by the society that vilified her. But the director has set out to highlight a woman's strength and self-reliance and he sticks to his brief even here, making Susanna use that wealth, in its entirety, for the benefit of the poor and the destitute.
Where this film -- obviously produced on the thinnest of shoestrings -- works is in the fact that, even as it tries to portray a power-packed woman as the central character, it does so without feminist ranting or the usual tears and pathos as Susanna stumbles from misery to misfortune. And, in that sense, Susanna follows the trend set by Chandran earlier, with Aliceinte... and Mankamma.
With this difference, that Alice and Mankamma were both portrayed as women ready, willing and able to lead their own lives without the need for men, at any level, Susanna gets her relevance from her interaction with the men in her life. Starting out as victim, it is she who gains steadily in strength, and towers in stature, while the men in her world are soon reduced to pygmy-like stature.
Vani Vishwanath has to struggle to shed her commercially-oriented style of acting, but the rest of the cast, with top-notch performers like Nedumudi Venu, 'Bharat' Gopi and M R Gopakumar as the old men whose lives increasingly revolve around, and depend on, Susanna play their roles to perfection.
K G Jayan has surmounted the financial constraints to work wonders with his camera. Cinematography, in fact, emerges as yet another character in the film, adding to its overall impact.
If there is a downside, it has to be the censors who, true to form, went haywire with their cutting shears. Ending up on the cutting floors were, among others, a scene that shows a painting of a nude goddess Kali, another wherein Susanna is tied to a bed in an erotic scene, a third that has a dance sequence featuring Susanna and another woman and so on.
While the cutting of these scenes have detracted from the pace of the film and its impact, Chandran -- in general a combative sort -- says he is too mentally exhausted to fight. "The film took two years to make," he says. "I have huge debts to clear and cannot go to Madras before settling them. And I cannot wait for as long as it takes to persuade the censor board to rethink, or to fight about the cuts."
He has, however, appealed to all artistes to protest against the unjustified decisions of the censor board.
"It is not that this is happening only in India -- the subjugation of women exists, in some degree, in every society. I believe that there is more to a woman than the accepted roles of daughter, wife and mother. The trouble is that society does not allow her to go beyond these roles, to be herself and, in the process, prove her true worth to society.
"This," says Chandran, "is what I am trying to probe in this film. Susanna does not lose her inherent feminity, her softness and kindness, despite the adversities she suffers."
And yes, this will be -- for as yet unexplained reasons -- Chandran's last film with women as the central, dominant, characters.
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