Sexy Durga Director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Unmadiyude Maranam Is Wacky Irreverence In Search Of A Platform
In another place, at another time, say in a Hindi film starring Manoj Kumar, these words might have been taken at their face value. In India of 2018, in maverick Malayalam director, certified rebel and avowed atheist Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s latest film though, in a socio-political scenario where religion and nationalism are being aggressively stuffed down the throats of the citizenry, I find myself laughing as they appear on screen right at the start.
Both expressions are flashed – separately, in succession – on a black, otherwise blank sheet as a preface to Sasidharan’s so-far-unreleased Unmadiyude Maranam (Death of Insane). Coming as they do from an iconoclast, these seemingly innocuous words take on a whole new meaning that serves as an indicator of the irreverence to follow. Context, after all, is everything.
Unmadiyude Maranam is set in a dystopian world where dreams dreamt without permission are declared illegal and anti-national, and an Emergency-like situation leads to under-the-counter sales of these forbidden visions. It is not a conventional feature film – it has barely any dialogues, instead a monologue in Mollywood star Murali Gopy’s voice is juxtaposed against a montage of seemingly unconnected visuals including scenes played out by actors, shots of idyllic landscapes and archaeological sites, and actual archival news footage.
The videos sourced from news channels include the nationwide anti-rape protests that followed the 2012 Delhi gangrape, the Kiss Of Love campaign in Kerala, sloganeering in favour of Tamil writer Perumal Murugan, coverage of Gauri Lankesh’s assassination, and Sasidharan’s own high-profile battle with the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa a year back when his Sexy Durga was dropped from the programme – along with the Marathi film Nude – despite being picked for a screening by the festival’s selection committee.
Sasidharan describes Unmadiyude Maranam as a very personal reaction to his traumatic experience with Sexy Durga, as a result of which he “was undergoing a kind of depression”, a feeling “that there is no way out”. This explains the ruminative tone of Gopy’s narration. The text is purportedly fictional, essay-like and heavily abstract when heard in isolation and interpreted literally, but when seen in the context of the visuals, it mirrors today’s India to an unnerving extent. The film’s clever impertinence lies in the fact that it does not name any political party or specific ideological group, so if anyone were to claim that it is a criticism of their particular party or ideology, their accusation would amount to an admission of guilt.
The choice of Murali Gopy is interesting, since he is perceived in some quarters as being pro-RSS/BJP. The fact that his late father, the legendary actor Bharat Gopy, joined BJP no doubt contributes to this assumption, as does the actor-writer’s gritty 2013 Malayalam film Left Right Left, which faced heat for exposing the rot in Kerala’s Communist party. Yet, as Khaleej Times’ Deepa Gauri puts it, with Left Right Left he “annoyed partisan left and right-wing parties in equal measure”. Besides, he was vocal and unequivocal in his support for Sexy Durga when the BJP government embarked on a witchhunt against the film. (Gopy’s recurrent good-man-as-victim-of-scheming-woman line, evidenced in Left Right Left and this year’s Kammara Sambhavam, requires a separate discussion.) Zeroing in on him as the voice of Unmadiyude Maranam may be Sasidharan’s resistance against the mindless slotting of all unbracketable individuals as compulsorily “Communist”, “Congressi” or “Sanghi” in the current public discourse if and when they are critical of one or the other of these ideological/political streams/organisations.
In short, Unmadiyude Maranam is fascinating, surreal, frightening, hilariously cheeky, deeply philosophical and political, and while it will most certainly be labelled artsy by those whose tastes don’t lie in the direction of experimental cinema, it is hard to pin down in terms of genre, content or even ideology. It is documentary-like but flirts with fantasy, it is fantasy that reflects reality only because our current reality is so bizarre that no writer of the past could have guessed that an imagined hell would ever become the truth we live in.
It is also, frankly, uncensorable. Although the news footage used in the film covers episodes spanning several years and states governed by various parties, the present BJP government at the Centre is likely to view Unmadiyude Maranam as being aimed at this establishment, if not in the same way that they have interpreted any exhortation to “vote for secularism” since 2014 to mean “vote against BJP” then because Sasidharan’s spirited defence of Sexy Durga (in contrast with the Nude team’s virtual silence at IFFI) embarrassed the sarkar. In that sense, there is no point in submitting Unmadiyude Maranam for Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) clearance.
Not that the film would stand a chance if another party were heading the Central Government. India’s prevailing Censor practices and continuum of social conservatism place curbs on CBFC officials across ideological divides, making it impossible, as of now, for even a liberal to okay a film such as this that repeatedly uses the naked human body (all sides displayed) both as a metaphor and in enacted scenes of harassment and assault. At the very least, massive cuts or pixellation would be demanded, which would amount to slaughtering the film on the outside chance that Sasidharan were to agree.
For his part, the director does not want to waste his time submitting Unmadiyude Maranam to the CBFC, having burnt his fingers severely with Sexy Durga. His point is not merely that he sees it as a purposeless exercise since the outcome is predictable. He admits that if Unmadiyude Maranam is rejected by the Board “there can be a huge news on that: ‘Sanal’s fourth film also ended up in a Censor problem’,” which could translate into audience curiosity, but the lesson Sexy Durga taught him, he says, is that a controversy diverts attention from the substance of a film.
“In India at least people could not find the essence of Sexy Durga and remained stuck on the title,” is his lament. “People know the film and me only due to the controversy, and what I was trying to convey was not conveyed at all.” He recalls with regret that at parallel screenings of Sexy Durga, before and after its mainstream theatrical release, all viewers’ questions were related to the brouhaha over it, not the issues it deals with. Contrary to conventional wisdom in PR circles, Sasidharan feels “the controversy was actually killing the film.” This attitude reflects his desire for something beyond the spotlight and box-office returns, a desire to get to people “who I can ignite” to generate a conversation.
This is why he wants Unmadiyude Maranam to reach audiences “without any unwanted noises” so that they “just watch, understand and discuss it without any kind of burden or baggage”.
How he can make that happen is the big concern now. Without a CBFC certificate, a theatrical release is ruled out. The filmmaker’s current predicament arises from knowing that Unmadiyude Maranam is unlikely to be showcased even on India’s festival circuit where at least one major fest has already rejected it.
As permitted by a provision of the Cinematograph Act 1952, the country’s Central governments have, over the years, by and large given festivals an exemption from CBFC clearance for films to be screened at these events. The present government’s I&B Ministry denied this exemption to Sexy Durga for Mumbai’s MAMI fest last year. Following the subsequent noisy imbroglio at IFFI 2017 over Sexy Durga (changed to S. Durga by then by a CBFC directive) and Nude, India’s festivals have become cautious –self censorship by organisers over general fears of greater government monitoring and mob violence combined specifically with their awareness of Sasidharan’s already strained relationship with the powers that be, leaves Unmadiyude Maranam in the position of being perhaps a domestic festival outcaste.
Festivals abroad that he has approached so far have found the film too personal or beyond the understanding of non-Indian viewers. Yet, the personal is most often universal too, and cultural nuances notwithstanding, Unmadiyude Maranam has global relevance in an age that has seen the simultaneous rise of divisive right-wing leaders across the world, from Donald J. Trump in the far West to Rodrigo Duterte in the far East.
The film was completed this summer. E-platforms Sasidharan has approached so far have not bought into the concept either – not surprising since Unmadiyude Maranam is more wacky and wacko than anything these websites have sourced from India so far. Besides, orthodox voices in the country have already been raised against uncensored works being available for viewing online.
Be that as it may, Sasidharan is determined to get Unmadiyude Maranam to audiences before the 2019 general elections in India, because “I feel now everything is, like, concentrating towards a kind of Emergency situation.” He is no longer in a state of despair though, as he was during the Sexy Durga affair. He has almost finished work on his next film, Chola, which is unlike all his previous starless projects since it features marquee names Joju George and Nimisha Sajayan. Once that is done, he intends to shift his focus back to Unmadiyude Maranam a.k.a. Death of Insane. “If it is not in theatres, okay, then let people watch on their own personal computers,” he says.
The fact that a film on thought control requires intricate planning to escape the thought police proves the very point it set out to make. QED.
This article was published on Firstpost on December 13, 2018:
Related article by Anna M.M. Vetticad: Sexy Durga or S Durga? How the government’s reaction proves the very point the film makes
Photographs courtesy: Sanal Kumar Sasidharan