Director Sanal K Sasidharan’s S Durga (2017) opens with scenes of Garudan Thookkam, a ritual art form prevalent in Kali temples of south Kerala, where devotees dance and later dangle by hooking their skin on the back to a shaft, in order to submit themselves as a reward for the problems solved. They do this in goddess Kali’s temples. Parallelly, there is Durga, a north Indian migrant who is on the run with a young man named Kabeer; they want to reach the railway station. Soon they find themselves in a van with two local gangsters. What happens through the rest of the night makes the story of the Malayalam film, which was at the center of controversy last year for its name Sexy Durga. The name was changed by the censor board into its present form.
The film has won laurels at films festivals world over, including the Hivos Tiger Award at the 2017 International Film Festival Rotterdam, Golden Apricot at Armenia’s Yerevan International Film Festival, and Best International Feature Film Award at the Guanajuato International Film Festival in Mexico, among others. It was screened last week at India Habitat Centre, as a part of The Indian Express Film Club, and was followed by a discussion with Shubhra Gupta, film critic, The Indian Express.
The audience, which included lawyers, doctors, academicians, and students, spoke on the contrast brought out in the film, when it comes to treating female figures. “Where on one hand, we worship goddess Durga, on the other our perspective changes when we see a woman with another man. There was so much tension while watching the movie, we did not know where they would end up. Will they reach the station or not,” said Renuka Nidagundi, a Kannada writer. Many agreed with her and shared that the film was gut-wrenching, and they watched it with constant tension and dread.
Srishti Jaswal, a media professional, shared an incident that occurred with her while walking in Shimla with her father. A group of men questioned Jaswal’s father on how the girl was related to him. There was a minor scuffle when one of the men tried to hold her hand. “When my father can be questioned for being with his daughter and it can happen to us, why can’t it happen elsewhere with others? I think we’ve failed as a society,” she said. While many people from Kerala shared that it was not the Kerala they relate to, others talked about the public spaces in the state, which are male-dominated even though the gender ratio is on a higher scale. “But the movie is not only about Kerala, it is about all of us,” pointed out Vijay Dahiya, an advocate. Issues such as women safety, their helplessness in such situations, and how violence is not just sexual, but verbal, were also discussed by many.
In the middle of the discussion, a surprise for the audience was unveiled when Sasidharan joined the conversation. “I knew that the title of the film will create some problem and that it will irk some people, but I firmly believe that art has a duty to irk people. I don’t want to make a film which will make people very happy wherein the end a hero suddenly appears to solve the issue. A filmmaker can’t solve the problem, he can pose a question,” he said, adding that the film is not Durga’s story but his own, of a time when he was with his girlfriend. “What happens when you’re on the street with a lady whose name is Durga, Marya or Fathima and when she is of another religion? A lot of people are seeing the film to know what is the controversy and they don’t get it; they don’t come to watch the film but the controversy,” he said.