Sanal Kumar Sashidharan’s Sexy Durga -- which won an award at the National Film Development Corporation’s Film Bazaar (NFDC) here on Thursday evening -- was arguably one of the finest movies that this writer saw here. The Bazaar runs along with the International Film Festival of India.
Sashidharan has this amazing ability to surprise even a hardcore critic, and his debut feature, An Off-Day Game (Ozhivudivasathe Kali), in Malayalam, was almost magically unpredictable that narrated the drinking bout of some friends on a holiday in a desolate bungalow which turned notoriously evil. The climax was so eerie that it sent shivers down one’s spine. Can pals turn so cruel? Obviously, they can, according to Sashidharan’s movie, which is also deeply layered, disturbing us with the fact that men can be terribly casteist. Yes, even in this day and age.
In contrast, Sexy Durga -- also in Malayalam with a smattering of Hindi -- attempts to tell us that men can be magnanimous when they want to be. And this emerges on a dark night, on a lonely highway (”which is a scary place after sunset,” the young director quips).
The film opens with a woman, Durga (Rajashri Despande), anxiously waiting on a deserted road in the middle of the night -- till Kabeer (Kannan Nair) arrives. We do not know whether they are married, but we are sure that they are eloping from an undisclosed destination to Chennai. They have to reach a train station, and have to thumb a lift to get there.
Unfortunately, the small van that stops by has two men, all sozzled up. And the ride for the couple turns nightmarish. One of the men ogles so hard that Durga is not just uncomfortable, but terrified, and a point comes when she wants to get off. The men do not allow this, saying that the place is dangerous at night.
Durga and Kabeer meet several strange men that night which never seems to end. And the road never appears to lead to a train station. And the journey for the couple -- already in a fix -- gets more and more frightening.
Sashidharan has this intelligent ability to lead us up to what we presume he would do, but he presents us with something totally unforeseen. He plots Sexy Durga in a way whereby he conveys fear without actually resorting to violence. There is nothing remotely violent in the movie, but Durga is nonetheless petrified, her inability to understand Malayalam (she is a north Indian) adding to her torturous plight. Even as she keeps urging Kabeer that they get off the vehicle and even as she keeps pleading with the men to stop the van (”But this is an unsafe place,” they keep interjecting), one can see terror writ large on her face. This can be read as truly Hitchcockian -- a style that the master adopted to imply fear without quite getting down to exhibit aggression. He was truly a genius at that, a master of the macabre.
In Sexy Durga, it is the word fear that we keep hearing with the drunks telling the couple, the woman in particular, not to be scared. But it has quite the opposite effect. As Sashidharan says during an interview here that the threat of violence, the possibility of violence is far more rattling to the human psyche than actual force and ferocity are.
Intercutting into the movie’s narrative is the festival of Garudan Thookkam -- where devotees pierce themselves with iron hooks and rods -- a practice that the helmer feels is a clear indication that aggression and violence are an integral part of Indian society. “Also, people are oblivious of this. They have a very callous attitude towards violence, and are never bothered by violence unless it strikes them... It is a selfish society.”
Sashidharan also contends that the drunks while continuing to assure the couple that they are helping the two to reach their destination, are actually not doing anything of the sort. On the contrary, the men are interfering in the personal space and life of the couple -- driving the man and woman to a state of terror.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran covered the NDFC Film Bazaar.)