Mumbai, 20 Oct 2017 8:00 IST
Updated: 08 Nov 2017 18:05 IST
Director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's film subjects the audience to the same fear, claustrophobia and judgement that every woman is subjected to.
The end of the final screening of Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's S Durga — the bowdlerized title of Sexy Durga — at the 19th MAMI Mumbai Film Festival was greeted with stunned silence. As the lights came on, the audience woke up, as from a spell, shifted in its seats, and looked around. Then, a few got up and started to leave for home, while many remained seated, staring at the screen. Your reviewer offered up an unknown prayer to a non-existent god for every female colleague and friend on the road.
We could leave that paragraph as a summary of the experience of Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's thrilling film, but it would not justify the reviewer's pay cheque. Particularly in appraisal season.
The winner of the Special Jury award at the 19th MAMI Mumbai Film Festival 2017, Sexy Durga (let's call it what it is) is a stunning piece of cinema that forces the audience to re-examine the world of fear, claustrophobia and animalistic viciousness that surrounds women.
Strangely, throughout the film, there is only one female character, and she literally has little to do. In an interview with Cinestaan.com before their win at the Rotterdam Film Festival, Sanal Kumar had said, "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."
The film begins with the sight of a ritual procession of men preparing to worship the goddess Durga. They writhe in ecstasy, disfigure and impale themselves on hooks and with spears through their flesh. This depiction of lives hanging on the edge of pain and darkness forms the metaphorical opposite of the story that unfolds.
It begins suddenly on a dark night in a small town in Kerala. Durga (Rajshri Deshpande) waits beside an empty street for her lover, Kabir, to elope. He arrives, but there is no transport in sight. They finally hitch a ride on a decrepit-looking van, with two very shady-looking guys. Thus begins their journey of fear, suspicion and terror. While the ritual procession had the men suffering pain and piercing, it is the woman who undergoes the taunts, insults and judgements all through the night.
As the van journeys through the night, the couple try to find ways to escape from these 'well-meaning' but very shady men. Yet, every source of their escape seems just as shady. The policemen who judge them for having one woman in the van, or the two 'moral policemen' who decide to prevent the two from eloping in the middle of the night. At every stop, the audience is presented with cases of the quiet discriminating judgement that women go through every day. And it is terrifying. The fear is not limited to the woman either. Her companion is soon infected by the same terror.
Sanal Kumar's film reeks of machismo, but it has no violence. It has no sex either, which raises the question about what really bothered our 'sanskari' Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC).
But the shadow of violence looms large over every scene. There is the potential for every scene to escalate into something chilling and vicious, but it does not. After a point, the audience is just as confused whom to trust and whom not to. That is where the film holds us, the audience, in judgement. At no point do we ever think the couple will reach its destination safely. That is symptomatic of our perception of the world.
In a story set in half a night, the director manages to maintain the thrill with stunning visuals and a brilliant screenplay. The camera moves like a hidden observer, capturing the woman's paranoia and terror and contrasting it with the lackadaisical, nonchalant machismo of the other men in the scene. This contrast helps build the feeling of claustrophobia.
Sanal Kumar crowds his camera within the van, and fills it with grim, shady faces that make scenes feel suffocating. Just when the tension reaches a tipping point, he allows the couple, and his camera, to escape into the outside. But the dark loneliness outside is no more comforting than the suffocating, noisy inside of the van. Soon, he drags us, inevitably, back into the same confines.
As the film progresses into darker realms, the scenes come alive with LSD-esque lighting, macabre masques, and heavy metal music that create a frenzied, demonic atmosphere. It rivals the frenzy the festival descends into. But while one is full of loud music, crowds and tortured men, yet feels safe, the sight of four men promising safety to a lonely couple on a quiet, dark night does not.
The sound design of the film is another magical element that deserves praise. Every sound, crackle, murmur etches the scene with tension. There are no swanky cuts, or introductory or theme music elements that take your attention away from the unfolding plot. Its descent into madness is as smooth, for the lack of any other adjective, as can be plotted.
To conclude, Sexy Durga is a film that anyone who has been oblivious to the plight of women in this country needs to watch. And by that I mean everyone.
As we left the screening, your reviewer heard a woman say, "I could feel everything she [Durga] was going through. I know that feeling." At the risk of sounding disrespectful and cliched, your reviewer would like to add: 'Me too'.
S Durga was screened at the 19th MAMI Mumbai Film Festival on 18 October 2017.