22 Female Kottayam, a Malayalam revenge film from last year, is an unsettling watch. It takes explicitly admitted inspiration from other female revenge films of yesteryear, such as Kill Bill and Ek Hasina Thi, but pushes the concept a tiny bit further.
As such, both the film and this spoilerous review have to be warned for discussion of rape, violence and sexual abuse. If you don't feel like you can stomach it, I won't be offended if you click away now.
If I was just to talk about the film as a film, without taking into consideration all the things that affected my viewing of it - which I will shortly get to - I'd say this: Rima Kallingal does a splendid job as the lead, as do the other actors in the film. The narrative jumps, that seem to be quite common in modern Malayalam cinema, based on my little experience of it so far, work well and the pace never lets up. The cinematography is beautiful but grounded, and while I didn't feel that all the songs featured were necessary, they were enjoyable in the mix.
As recent events brought the topic of rape into a national conversation in India (and subsequently elsewhere, as people in other corners of the globe rushed to point out to people that rape was far from being just an Indian problem), I feel as if I have to discuss the film through the lens of its rape depiction. How we talk about rape matters, especially when the conversation quite often contains widely-perpetuated myths about this crime.
The first myth is that rape only happens to lone women who are out late and get attacked by strangers. This is not the case in the film. Tessa is raped by somebody she knows, and trusts, though he is not a family member or a close friend.
The actual depiction of the rape is uncomfortable and unsettling, putting the audience in the position of Tessa. As rape tends to be a gendered crime, with women more often than victims than perpetrators, it's obvious that it will hit home more for some viewers than others. Regardless, it's a punch in the gut - there is nothing sexualized, romanticized or sanitized about the scene. It's as ugly, painful and brutal as the crime is.
The second rape myth is that rape is about sex. We see this unfortunate myth somewhat tied to the rape in 22FK - the rapist asks Tessa to have sex with him, with the clear indication that he is not taking 'no' for an answer. Later on, in her revenge, Tessa performs an act designed to remove virility from her boyfriend who schemed against her. Let's just make this clear: rape is about power and domination. It's about using your power to take advantage and abuse somebody else. Whatever sexual excitement the rapist feels during the act comes through this abuse of power, the use of somebody weaker than them against the victim's will. This was my biggest problem with the film. Since an impotent person can rape, as penetration doesn't have to happen through a sexual organ, the revenge Tessa takes on her ex-boyfriend is questionable. On the other hand, he betrayed her trust but didn't physically abuse her himself - though what he did was just as sickening, to be honest.
The third rape myth is that rape can be the fault of the victim. This is sadly probably the most common myth, seen perpetuated by people in the media and others in daily conversations about rape survivors (or victims), in the case of the Delhi bus gang rape and others. Discussions about the clothing and behaviour of the victim feed the myth, and are essentially ways of limiting women and their choices in life - don't go there, don't wear that, don't do this or you're "inviting" rape. The fault of every crime, however, is on the perpetrator. They make the decision to abuse somebody, they do the crime and therefore the fault is theirs and theirs only. Since rape is primarily about power, they will obviously take advantage of somebody who they see as weaker, and that person may be drunk or asleep or alone, but there isn't a single situation where having sex with somebody who doesn't want it (or who is not in the position to want it, such as being heavily intoxicated) is okay. It's always rape, and rape is a crime. Thankfully the film does not perpetuate this vicious myth, though I don't see how it could - the narrative of "she deserved it" has no place in a film that puts the agency of the heroine first.
However, as it stands, 22FK really made me ponder my general stance on female revenge films that deal with rape, and how my position has shifted over the years. Ek Hasina Thi definitely remains a favourite of mine, but in Sarika was not sexually abused, she was just taken advantage of in an extreme way. In EHT, the revenge is definitely cathartic and desired by the viewer. In Kill Bill the crime is horrifying but not rape and the film's obvious inspiration, the Japanese film Lady Snowblood (Shurayukihime), has the heroine revenge the rape and murder of her mother, not herself. I guess the crux of the problem is that rape becomes a plot device that pushes the heroine to go to extreme lengths to get her revenge. This is why I Spit On Your Grave, the original of the genre of rape revenge films, has a very questionable position - there can be something cathartic about showing a rape survivor take revenge on her rapists, but it's also messed up that the female lead has to suffer through this horrible crime in order to get that agency in the film.
On the other hand, I feel that if you put your central female character through the amount of injustice that these films contain, it only makes sense to have them bring a world of pain onto those who have wronged her (while it's not the way I'd sort things out in real life, in the fictional world it makes thematic sense). This is why I wish Ishaqzaade had taken a drastically different turn on the second half. So I guess my position is that if you must portray these sorts of stories, then it's good that the female characters get to avenge whatever wrongs they've endured - much like many male characters get in other revenge tales. However, it would also be good if for once, the female character didn't personally have to suffer so much in order to play this part in a film - especially such a personal violation as rape.
22 Female Kottayam is a good film, but it's not one I'd easily recommend, or rewatch myself. It contains some good performances, a realistic portrayal of a heavy subject matter, and a somewhat cathartic conclusion in terms of the revenge, but I'm not sure it offers anything so new or in such a novel way that it would be a must-see for everybody. It definitely fits a certain genre, and there are films that aren't quite as unsettling or as partly problematic as this one. Therefore I have pretty ambivalent feelings about it - I'm glad I saw it, but I'm not sure I'd have missed out on a lot, had I not seen it.