One of the earliest memories of fatwas and other forms of threats against artists and writers exercising their liberty pertains to Salman Rushdie, whose Satanic Verses was considered unholy and un-Islamic. If one is right, the novel is still banned in India. Poor Rushdie had to live virtually underground for 10 years or so in England that cost the British exchequer quite a pie - and angered the tax-paying public there.
India has seen such threats against artistic freedom - more so in recent years, when fringe political groups have been overly sensitive to anything they considered unacceptable. Jolly LLB 2 ran into a storm and had to do away with some scenes. Strange, for Jolly LLB 1 faced no obstacles, and one would think that this movie too had poked fun at the legal system with Arshad Warsi’s Jolly, in one scene, telling the judge (Saurabh Shukla) in an open court that everybody knew that he took bribes. The judge smiled. Outside the cinemas, nobody minded. This was a few years ago, but now Sanal Sasidharan’s Sexy Durga - which last week won a coveted award at the Rotterdam International Film Festival - has been lambasted for its title. The director says he is getting “death threats”.
In an atmosphere which seems so vitiated and pregnant with terrible incidents of the kind we saw in Jaipur recently, when director Sanjay Leela Bhansali was abused and molested by a Rajput group, Karni Sena, for a scene in his forthcoming picture, Padmavati, Sasidharan cannot really breathe easy.
The young Malayalam helmer posted on Facebook that he was getting threats from a man claiming to be Rahul Shrivastava, president of Hindu Swabhiman Sangh. It is said that Shrivastava has a problem with the word ‘Sexy’ being placed before ‘Durga’ in the film’s title.
Sasidharan quipped: “When I said my movie has nothing to do with ‘goddess Durga’, Shrivastava wanted to know why I could not re-title the film as ‘Sexy Sreeja’. When I told Shrivastava that Sreeja was also the name of a goddess, he retorted by saying that it was also his wife’s name... “Arrey bhai… use the same logic here please… Durga is the name of so many girls too”. And one of them happens to be the heroine of Sasidharan’s latest creation.
Sexy Durga is a marvellous movie about an eloping couple - who face terrifying moments in a van driven by drunk men on a deserted highway at night. Sasidharan captures fear with dignified brilliance, and one feels that people should stop being so judgmental about cinema. Otherwise, India could become another Iran, where curbs on artistic freedom have been suffocating - but yet not powerful enough to stop men like the house-arrested Jafar Panahi, who despite a ban on his working, has managed to make three movies. One of them was Taxi, which won the Golden Bear at Berlin a couple of years ago - where the auteur himself plays a cabbie driving on the streets of Tehran, picking passengers and chatting with them. A film emerged out of this! This is sheer innovation, artistic innovation.
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