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Kappela, a Malayalam movie, has been gaining praise for showing the dangers of girls trusting strangers. Beyond that however, the movie has lessons for the parents and the whole family.
I’m not sure when exactly Kapella dropped on Netflix. A couple of days ago, though, my husband who saw the movie, told me that I MUST watch it. Since then, I’ve seen multiple people recommending it on my socials, saying that it has an important lesson for girls today.
I can’t articulate exactly why, but that statement kept rubbing me the wrong way. Maybe because girls already have too many “lessons” to learn. Because no one ever seems to teach the men/boys to behave. It just felt like more victim blaming and moral policing.
So, I approached Kappela warily. I was pleasantly surprised. That people are only taking away that “girls need to learn,” is not the movie’s fault – it is their own bias. The movie, actually, has a much more layered message.
Jessy (Anna Ben, who pan India audiences may know from Kumbalangi Nights), lives in a tiny Wayanad village, and is one of two daughters of a highly conservative Christian family. When she dials a wrong number one day, one thing leads to another, and she ends up falling in love, over the phone, with a man she hasn’t even met.
The man in question, is Vishnu (Roshan Matthews, who we just saw in Choked), a rickshaw driver. When a marriage proposal from a local man starts to get serious, Jessy starts worrying, and makes a plan to meet Vishnu, all alone, in Kozhikode city. While there, she meets another man, Roy (Sreenath Bhasi), who first pretends to be Vishnu, and later when Vishnu appears and takes Jessy away, he follows them all over town.
Why is Roy following them? What will happen to Jessy? These are the questions the movie answers, with a truly brilliant twist.
* SPOILERS AHEAD
Like Jessy, the audience too is led to believe that Vishnu is a perfectly good, upstanding man. We are shown numerous scenes of him being respectful to the women around him.
Roy, on the other hand, drinks, smokes, starts fights, is rude, unemployed and even considers chain snatching as a profession. One scene shows him forcefully prying off a gold ring from the hand of the woman he loves, so that he can mortgage it.
Vishnu, good; Roy, creep.
The twist comes, when we realize that Vishnu is kind to women, only because he is a sex trafficker and wants to con them into trusting him; and that Roy, in spite of all his faults, is actually a conscientious man.
Vishnu wants to sell Jessy off to some man in Mangalaapuram, and Roy who has intuited this, comes to her rescue.
Like Oru Vadakkan Selfie, it warns women against trusting men they don’t know. An audience that refuses to look deeper than this surface level message, will take it as ‘proof’ that women must be ‘protected’ because they don’t know better. That women must not be given mobile phones (this in fact, is one of the major reasons for the mobile phone gap in India), that they must not be allowed to travel alone, that women must not be allowed to socialize with men.
However, to take away only this from the movie is to ignore the critique it makes of this sort of victim blaming and moral policing.
A crucial scene in the movie, shows Jessy’s sister coming home from school, seated on a cycle with another boy. When her father notices them, she realizes she is in trouble. She runs home, even as her father chases her through the streets. At home, she gets a beating, for ‘roaming around with boys.’ Her mother, who she goes to for support, berates her as well. Jessy looks on, helpless.
It is established, that the girls are being controlled and policed.
Part of the reason why Jessy wants to escape into a life with Vishnu, is because she sees him as the way out of this restrictive life. It is also the reason why she doesn’t tell her parents about him, and instead makes a bad decision to go meet him by herself.
Imagine however, if Jessy’s parents were considerate of her desires. If instead of forcefully trying to marry her off to a man she doesn’t love, they had encouraged her to be independent. If they were open to the idea of their daughters falling in love. If they were not so controlling. If, instead of an atmosphere of suspicion and guilt, they had built a home full of trust and unflinching support.
Would Jessy then have felt the need to respond to the advances of a stranger? Even if she had, wouldn’t she then have told her parents instead of hiding it from them? Wouldn’t everything be completely different then?
It is easy to dismiss Roy simply as a necessary plot twist, or as a typical male saviour. However, I see Roy as all of us.
How Roy responds to the situation can teach us a little about bystander intervention.
He doesn’t jump to conclusions, but at the same time, he doesn’t pretend that whatever is happening is none of his business. He follows them, keeps an eye on Jessy, even as he calls various contacts apprising them of the situation, taking their advice, and recruiting help where needed.
His rescue of Jessy is a fight scene, and maybe not realistic, but what follows is again a good pointer towards ‘what to do.’ He assures her that she is safe, checks if she is okay, if she has money to go back home. Realizing that she is in shock and may need to talk to another woman, he has his female cousin speak to her and reassure her. He asks her what she wants, and doesn’t judge when she says that she wants to see the ocean. He simply accepts that that is what she needs in the moment. (Contrast this with the Karnataka High Court blaming a rape survivor for sleeping after being raped.)
I especially appreciate that even though Jessy goes back to her old life after this harrowing experience, she doesn’t automatically start thinking that she is ‘spoilt goods’ and should just marry the guy her parents want her to.
The final scene shows Jessy lighting a candle to Mother Mary at the local kappela (loosely translated as chapel; but it has a more culturally specific meaning). The camera zooms out, and we see that the kappela is at the edge of a precipice.
Were it not for the presence of the kappela, that spot would simply be a place where there is the potential danger of falling; of dying. Because the kappela exists, it is now a spot where people come to find peace and succor.
Supportive, loving families are like that kappela. They prevent us from falling into the precipice. That ultimately is the message of the movie.
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