Controversy over globally acclaimed film Sexy Durga is unfortunate
The director has clarified the film has nothing to do with either Goddess Durga or any other aspect of religion.
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When I saw Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's Sexy Durga in Malayalam in November, 2016, at the National Film Development Corporation of India's Film Bazaar in Goa's Panaji, the first question I asked him was how he was planning to get past the censors with a title like this. He really had no idea he said, but hastened to add that Durga was just another Indian name. It could have been Lakshmi or Saraswati or Maya or Meena. I got his point, and in any case as Sasidharan had remarked, his movie had nothing, virtually nothing to do with either Goddess Durga - whom most parts of India are now worshipping with Navaratri/Dussera on - or any other aspect of religion.
However, Sexy Durga has now run into a storm with the young director having withdrawn it from the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) to be held in Thiruvananthapuram from December 8 to 15.
He explained the reason for his decision on his Facebook page: "I have withdrawn the movie, in protest of the wilful insult from the side of the Kerala Chalachitra Academy (which organises the International Film Festival of Kerala) and IFFK by putting the film, which has already gained global acclaim by winning multiple international awards (including the Hivos Tiger Award at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam last February), in an insignificant corner of the festival named Malayalam Cinema Today. This section is instituted to promote contemporary Malayalam cinema, which needs support.
There are lots of good movies, may be better films than Sexy Durga, which need such attention and support. As a movie, which has already got world attention, Sexy Durga doesn't need such a consolation from the academy. If the academy was sincere about screening the film at the IFFK, it could have included the movie in any other category as a token of acknowledgment of the recognitions the film had already received."
Sexy Durga was in the Malayalam Cinema Today section along with Mahesh Narayanan's Take Off, Dileesh Pothan's Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, Salim Kumar's Karutha Joothan, Satheesh and Santhosh Babusenan's Maravi and Prashanth Vijayan's Athishayangalude Venal among others.
The jury, headed by Ramachandra Babu, picked Prem Shankar's Randu Per and Sanju Surendran's Eden as the two Malayalam entries for the competition category.
Of course, Sasidharan's stand may lend itself to a debate, but having seen Sexy Durga, I feel that it deserves to be watched by as many people as possible - and what better venue than a festival like the IFFK, which is also open to the common man.Sasidharan does make gripping cinema, a view shared by reviewers like The Hollywood Reporter's Deborah Young. He has this ability to surprise even hardcore critics. His debut feature, An Off-Day Game (also in Malayalam), led us to a climax we had not anticipated. It talks about how the drinking bout of some friends on a holiday in a desolate bungalow turns notoriously evil. The end was so eerie that it sent shivers down my spine. Can pals turn so cruel? Obviously they can, according to Sasidharan's movie, which is also deeply layered, disturbing us with a revelation that men can be terribly casteist and in a gruesomely murderous manner.
In contrast, the director's second feature, Sexy Durga, 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", Sasidharan told me during a chat at the Bazaar.
There are lots of good movies, may be better films than Sexy Durga, which need attention and support.
The film opens with a young 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. And the ride for the couple turns nightmarish. One of the men ogles so hard that Durga is not just uncomfortable, but also terrified, and a point comes when she wants to get off the vehicle. The men do not allow this, saying that the highway is dangerous at night. Durga and Kabeer meet a group of motley men that night, a night which seems to be never-ending, and on a road which never appears to lead to the train station. And the journey for the couple - perhaps already in a fix - gets more and more frightening.
Sasidharan has this enormous ability to lead us up, but present us with something totally unforeseen. He plots Sexy Durga in a way whereby he conveys fear without actually showing violence. There is nothing remotely violent in the film, 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 van and even as she keeps pleading with the men to stop the vehicle ("But this is an unsafe place", they keep interjecting), one can see terror writ large on her face. It seems that the men are enjoying the fact that they are terrorising the couple without actually harming them physically. It is a kind of psychological war they are waging against the helpless duo.
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 afraid. But it has quite the opposite effect. As Sasidharan says, the threat of violence, the possibility of violence is far more disturbing to the human psyche than actual force and ferocity can be. In a way, to me Sexy Durga seemed almost Hitchcockian!