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The full horror of spousal rape is brought home with a vengeance in the Malayam film Light in the Room (Ottamuri Velicham), a shocker of a debut feature from writer-director Rahul Riji Nair. The story of a woman-hating mountain man who marries a sweet young girl without relatives to protect her is chilling to watch — until the bride decides to liberate herself from the nightmare in the last act. Though Nair finds a clever and satisfying way to end her torture, it can’t erase what has gone before, and there is a certain imbalance in the narrative that leaves an unpleasant taste.
Perhaps for this reason the tale seems more horror film than conventional drama. Deliberately building an atmosphere of horror through the use of loud, hair-raising music and bold lighting, Nair puts his young heroine Sudha (played with refreshing naturalness by Vinitha Koshy) in grave danger in a lonely mountain cabin with her psychopath husband Chandran (Deepak Parambol), while his mother and brother in the next room pretend nothing is happening. The film has won a number of awards in its native region of Kerala, including best film at the Kerala State Film Awards, and gets Nair’s career off to a fast and colorful start.
The film’s restrained running time (for India) gives the editor a chance to concentrate the action. Trouble is brewing from the opening scene of a small wedding party bouncing up mountain roads in a jeep, which suddenly breaks down. A bad omen, says one character, and it sure is. The party reaches the isolated two-room house where Chandran lives with his brother Ramesh and his gray-haired mother. While poor Sudha waits nervously in the inner room that is to be her new home, the men get drunk just outside her wide-open window. When the groom finally stumbles inside, he’s too wasted to do anything with her.
Still a virgin, Sudha spends a sleepless, fully dressed night beside him and her discomfort only grows when she realizes the window is missing shutters and the grotesque, hand-made light fixture that bathes the room in ugly neon can never be turned off. Chandran calls it the “invention of my life” and forbids her to touch it. Through the thin curtain that serves as a door to their room, she realizes with dismay that brother Ramesh can watch her dressing.
But privacy isn’t the only thing lacking up Cold Mountain — basic humanity is in short supply, too. Chandran goes into a wild rage when Sudha brings him lunch at the “Electricel Reparings” shop where he spends his time tinkering with wires, lights and engines. When, after a number of days, he decides to consummate their marriage, he does it with his fists and ready-to-hand tools like pliers, a hammer and a screwdriver. The torture is off-camera, but the girl’s screams are horrible to hear.
Underlining how common and unremarkable marital rape is, Nair fills the background with surprisingly normal supporting characters who turn a blind eye. Most notable is actress Pouly Valsan as Sudha’s long-suffering mother-in-law, who “comforts” the girl by telling her how she was beaten as a bride, too, and she has never forgotten the pain. Local details add to the realism: a tree that serves as a simple shrine to Shiva, a wild boar that ravages mother’s tapioca garden, a hailstorm that brings out huge scorpions, the astounding beauty of the green mountains and bubbling streams. Sudha shows real pleasure in the natural world around her, where tigers and elephants are said to roam. But they are very isolated on the mountain after the local factories shut down and most of the population moved into the valley. Her first escape attempt fails miserably and Chandran drags her back home by her hair.
In the uncomfortable role of the victimized bride, Koshy shows real spunk along with fully justified terror of her hillbilly mate. When at last she begins to think of ways to be rid of him, the audience seconds her determination and trembles at the risk she’s taking. As Chandran, Parambol is a good-looking psycho who glowers angrily with his head down. But he does pack a threat, and it’s saddening that the “normal” people around him don’t lift a finger to help that girl he is hurting.
Production company: First Print Studios
Cast: Vinitha Koshy, Deepak Parambol, Pouly Valsan, Rajesh Sharma, Renjit Shekar Nair
Director-screenwriter: Rahul Riji Nair
Executive producers: Sujith Warrier, Zam Abdul Vahid
Director of photography: Luke Jose
Production designer: Sidharth Jeevakumar
Costume designers: Nithya Vijay, Devika S. Nair
Editor: Appu N. Bhattathiri
Music: Siddhartha Pradeep, Sheron Roy Gomez
Casting director: Mohamed Sohal
Venue: MAMI Mumbai Film Festival (India Gold)
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