Who is afraid of S Durga? A lot of people, it would seem, given the successive controversies Malayalam filmmaker Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s film has been embroiled in since February this year. First, it was the original title, Sexy Durga, which caused offence, and lately, it is the revised title card, Sxxx Durga, which has irked some of the judges at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), where the film was first invited to be screened, and then dropped.
I watched the film when it was screened at the 19th JIO MAMI Film Festival in Mumbai in October. Shot without a script or a screenplay, S Durga is bookended by long, documentary-style footage of men, young and older, readying to take part in a religious ceremony, somewhere in Kerala. The preparation involves the consumption of liquids that could numb young men, or send them into a frenzy; music and drums and a crowd that has gathered to witness the proceedings. Later, the young men’s torsos are pierced with large hooks, and they are strung up on top of trucks that lead the procession.
The plot, so to speak, begins when Durga (Rajshri Deshpande) leaves her residence late at night, to join Kabeer (Kannan Nayar) — they appear to be eloping, but nothing is spelt out. There is no public transport available at that hour, so when they flag down a Maruti Omni, the couple ask for a lift to the railway station.
What follows is a nerve-wracking ride. The vehicle’s occupants are two curious men of questionable morals. After establishing that Durga is a rather “sexy” north Indian girl, they constantly pester the couple with a barrage of questions, comments, and conversation laced with innuendo. At one point, when the couple escape the van, they run into two Malayali uncles on a scooty, who appear to be well-intentioned, but every statement is dripping with judgement and authority. This sends them back to the van, which picks them up again. A lay viewer might think that S Durga is a film where nothing really happens; to them, it would appear to be a troublemaker’s indulgent take on religion and tradition. They will not appreciate Sasidharan’s taut thriller that talks about the power men exert in public and private spaces, of the ways in which they can worship the plastic idol of a goddess on a dashboard but not respect a woman of flesh and blood. The Durga in the backseat is sexy, because she is presumed to be a loose woman on the run, she is anybody’s game.
Through long takes where there is little but aimless conversation and apparently harmless banter, Sasidharan sheds light upon the symbolic violence of men against women, and sometimes, even other men. The rot is deep, and it is visible in the way men from different walks of life look at Durga, she is not a person, but a thing they must have some control over, because what is a woman doing out in the streets with her lover at night? Nobody knows but everybody has an opinion.
Is it surprising, then, that the most vocal opponents of S Durga are men in positions of power, who view themselves as custodians of Indian culture? Sasidharan’s film shows us the mirror, especially those of us watching it, men and women alike, that we are complicit in the gendered hierarchies we have created; in the claustrophobic rules we have abided by without questioning them. Soon, it will be five years since the horrific gang rape on December 16, an event that inspired Sasidharan to make S Durga, but has there been any change in the collective male mindset? Or how women perceive their fate, how they are conditioned to accept the injustices meted against them, with shame and self-loathing?
S Durga shows us that patriarchy affects us all, and the first step in breaking the cycle is to admit that we don’t treat marginalised, disenfranchised people, and women, with much humanity in India. But if the conversation is diverted to a lone question of religion and religious sentiments, then we are losing the fight. What will make the blind see? Perhaps, only Durga knows.