When a filmmaker takes liberties with his craft and takes a leap to experiment new modes of story-telling and image-making, we ought to pause and pay attention. Independent cinema retains its verve because there are filmmakers who stretch the limits of the conventions, often without regard to the established codes or with the desire to survive in safety. Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Sexy Durga tests the mettle of the film viewer to see if we are willing to take the risks to watch how a director unwraps the mysteries of story-telling, while he also unravels his cinematic palette.
This is a “road-movie,” a thriller, a terror-film, a caustic cultural critique and above all, a masterly work. The story of the film may be put in few words but its accomplishments in cinematic form are remarkably vast. Two lovers, Kabeer and Durga (their religious difference is hardly hinted) elope in the middle of the night. Durga waits for Kabeer alone under a street light on a dimly lit street corner and when he arrives, the two of them hitch a ride. They need to go to the nearest train station to get away from their parents and families. They are lucky; two men turn out to be kind enough take them along. It is a dark night; street lights are sparse and uneven. The men notice a woman in the back seat, sitting next to a fearful, passive man. Both of them are clutching on to their bags and their luck, facing an unknowable journey ahead. Their journey to the train station makes for the main narrative of the film. Their singular luck has to do with finding a ride instead of standing alone on the road for a long time.
The film is bookended with a ritual associated with the Goddess Kali in Kerala. Two men are attempting to “fly” on the hooks tended to their backs and legs. The elaborate ritual is filmed in its brute reality, with the camera swerving with the bodies and actions, steadying itself to bring forth the materiality of the image in all its raw qualities. As philosopher Alphonso Lingis observed years ago on this visits to India, excesses of bodies and gestures express worship and commitment far better than mere ornate expressions. Sasidharan films this scene in brutal, raw reality, as the camera’s spastic movements match the volcanic energy in the ritual itself. The frenzied ecstasy of this scene is interrupted harshly by the deathly calm of the scene with the other “Durga” waiting for her lover. We are now introduced to two faces of Durga, the goddess and the vulnerable one on the road. The dual faces-a goddess and a whore- tap the psyche of India’s perception of femininity.
As Durga and Kabeer find out in their van ride, the two men promising to take them are brute forces of male power. They terrorize their passengers by taking delight in the helpless of the woman and confident in their prowess over the man. Unstoppable verbal and gestural abuses come forth. Passengers’ “northern” character is ridiculed while the vulnerability of the woman is exploited with piercing declarations and solicitations. Their language isn’t crude but their intentions are filled with terror. Here, the journey continues; the light never eases up. We see the two lovers in the cramped-up van because Sasidharan wants us to be inside. When his camera is outside the van, it opens up the forest of darkness on the tar roads speeding up ahead in an endless night.
Sasidharan is interested inciting fear without displaying its graphic qualities. It is as if he does not want to stoop so low to the level of popular cinema. Expected horror is hardly a horror. It offers a perverse joy, a closure to one’s desires. As a viewer, you are made aware, if you dare, of the fearful nights that women must face in India, where one accompanying male is a pale power against the multiplied machismo of men. For these men, Durga the passenger is a sex-toy; a whore whose vulnerability hardly bites their conscience. There is no hope and no escape. The idea that cinema was meant for pleasure at the expense of someone else’s humiliation is thrown out of the window. This is an assault on the viewer’s sensibilities. It is an assault on the pretentious, duplicitous, hypocritical piety of Indian men who defend their view of women by saying they worship women as goddesses though they treat them like whores. The film is assault on the male viewer, the great paradigm that has molded cinema for over a century.
Knowing all this, you are still thrilled at the craftsmanship of the filmmaker, the economy of light played against darkness, the generosity of long takes, and long shots filled with ominous fear. You are a viewer admiring the techniques of fear deployed against you. The camera stares at empty dark spaces in vain but nothing from there is going to jump at you. The fear is here, in the mini-van, in the men whose unstoppable intimidation never ends. Sasidharan’s film is also a testimony to the thesis that words have power, words can hurt, terrorize and make humans tremble. For women, words hurled at them by men, where the firm vestiges of power direct their desires at women without impunity, are particularly injurious. The violence of language is as damaging as that of physical action. Sexy Durga is a testament to the insidious power of that violence, a narrative of fear caused by language.