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Interview Malayalam

Sexy Durga is about men, but the central part belongs to a woman: Sanal Sasidharan

One of the more talented and radical filmmakers of India, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan is known for his outspoken nature and fearless films. Speaking to Cinestaan.com, he opened up on the nature of society around us and the difficulty of choosing such subjects as a filmmaker.

Shriram Iyengar

The first look of Sexy Durga's trailer carries within it the seeds of a Hitchcockian film. Taut, minimalistic, and filled with the looming threat of something ominous, the film is a product of one of the more radical minds of Indian and Malayalam cinema, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan (SS). The film has received high praise from critics, with Anurag Kashyap calling it 'an extraordinary achievement'. Sanal Kumar has focused on the threat of violence faced by women across the country. The film stars Rajshree Deshpande as the eponymous Durga, while Bilas Nair, Arun Sol, Sujish and others make up the rest of the cast.

On the eve of his trip to the Rotterdam International Film Festival, where the film was competing for the prestigious Tiger award, Sanal Kumar spoke to Cinestaan.com about the difficulties of making 'this' kind of film, and why he usually chooses to work without a script. Excerpts: 

Cinestaan.com: We just saw the trailer of your film. It is a fascinating cut. It offers the fear of violence, rather than violence itself. Could you tell us more about the film?

SS: The film is about violence in society which exists quietly. When we say violence, we do not mean blood, screams and all that. In society, violence exists in different ways. I thought to make a film that contradicts the concept of violence, putting women in the spotlight. That's what I thought about when making Sexy Durga. There is a contradiction in the words put together, 'Durga' and 'sexy'. The film is all about this contradiction within society. 

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Ozhivudivasathe Kali also had a female protagonist around whom events unfold. She played a focal part in the story. Is this a conscious effort?

Actually, it is not a conscious effort. Actually, women are not the central character in my films. But they exist, and men work around them. That is what we see around us every day. Sexy Durga is actually a film about men, and the central part belongs to a woman. 

In our society today, we are governed by the male ideology. Men rule everything, even the lives of women. The concept of beauty, morality, modesty are defined by men. As a man, I am also experiencing all these issues. It was an attempt to show truthfully this hierarchy in society, that I see and what I felt. I am not putting women as a protagonist, but women are a central part of my stories.

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All of your films have a central tinge of psychology and societal perceptions. How do you pick your stories?

I think the life of an individual is controlled by society. I don't think an individual is really living their life. It is according to the rules of society. I think there is no individual freedom. This kind of suffocates individual rights. It always haunts me, that is why I choose subjects like these. The stories I am fascinated by are always like that, about the conflict between these ideals. 

You are a product of social media. You used crowd-funding as an effective means to fund your first film. How influential is social media for filmmakers today?

Oralpokkam was crowd-funded. Shaji Matthew has been kind enough to produce the other two. So only my first film was crowd-funded, because I was finding it difficult to find producers for my kind of films. It is because my films are not like the usual commercial films, so it was very difficult. 

Considering how Malayalam cinema has been among those that led a revolution in avant-garde, ideological cinema, I would think such films would be welcomed. Is it as difficult as it is in Mumbai?

Of course. Generally, people want hero-centric films. It is a common theme in India, everywhere people want hero-centric films. Theatre people will only accept those. I don't believe in the concept of hero-heroine or stars. It is always difficult to find producers for a story where humans are being themselves, flawed, and, sometimes, even with a tendency to be negative. 

We see characters in society who are not always positive, or likeable. They are often negative, have a lot of problems. We are going to show this kind of real human nature, [but] few people accept it. It is always difficult to make money with this. 

This despite winning the Kerala State Film award for both films?

Yeah. You won't believe it.

I believe you are now on your way to the Rotterdam International Film Festival, after the success at IFFI and MAMI in Mumbai. There is a growing clamour for more independent films in India. Do these film festival tours help?

Yes, I do believe they help. I don't know how much it can help in terms of regaining the production cost. Filmmaking is an expensive exercise. You need a good amount of money. If you are at least not getting the money back, you cannot survive.

Festivals are good for getting the film noticed, but they can't get the revenue. There needs to be another mechanism to reach the audience and make money. We are trying to show the films to group audiences. We did try some innovative ways for Oralpokkam. We went all over Kerala with the film and screened it in villages. We got a good response, some funds and generated a good audience. 

Next, Ozhivudivasathe Kali was released in theatres, and a lot of people came to theatres as well. 

We are living in an age of censorship where filmmakers are always questioned. What role do you see the filmmaker playing in society?

The morality of the institution and that of society is different. The institution seems to cite that the morality written on paper is the absolute morality. In society, you can see a lot of different things. A lot of deviation from 'normal' exists. The institutions believe that the laws implemented are everything. Even the hardest law can be broken, no? 

Institutions like the censor board think it is their duty to censor everything the filmmaker sees. This is absolute stupidity. You think by censoring they will be able to keep society clean? It is very difficult to make films according to their norms. 

Before thinking a film, I should probably think about the censor board and whether they will accept this. So, for a filmmaker to make something vital in society, it becomes very difficult.

Despite these struggles, films are capable of bringing about change in society. But we need to fight this, I don't know how. 

Coming back to the film, did you have a solid screenplay before shooting? There are reports of the film being shot with 10 shots and without a screenplay?

Initially, I thought I would make the film in 10 shots. But, it did not happen that way. I did not have a screenplay, though. I only had a concept. I went into the shoot bare-minded. After that, while making the film, I came to know how it was growing. It came out quite well. 

For Oralpokkam, I worked with a script. I had a storyline. After that, I have tried to avoid the script. It was convenient for me. It is challenging for me. It does help me to work.

Now, off to Rotterdam. Any expectations?

While making a film, or any art process, if you have an expectation, it will become a burden. I don't keep expectations at any time when making a film. It is not right. It will only affect the film badly. I make the film, if it is a good film, people will see it. Somewhere it might find appreciation also. Obviously, this may happen then I am very glad.