Kerala: March 23, 2018
Delhi: April 6, 2018
Sanal Kumar Sashidharan
Rajshri Deshpande, Kannan Nayar, Vedh, Sujeesh K.S., Arunsol, Bilas Nair, Nisthar Ahamed, Baiju Netto
In terms of conventional storyline, this is all there is to S Durga: a man and woman on a lonely road in Kerala get a lift from two menacing creeps.
Yet, in expanding that one sentence into a big-screen feature, Sanal Kumar Sashidharan serves up a universe of meaning that tears the mask off the dual-purpose woman-as-goddess trope that patriarchy holds out to women as a carrot and, simultaneously, stick.
Durga in this film is both the ordinary woman on the street and the mighty deity of the Hindu pantheon. She is the creature that society seeks to subjugate even while it worships her fearsome namesake in temples.
When we first meet the human Durga of this tale (played by Rajshri Deshpande), she is standing by a deserted road, waiting. From her body language, even from a distance, you can see that she is anxious. Her male friend Kabeer (Kannan Nayar) arrives, they set off walking towards the railway station, and shortly thereafter hitch a ride from a passing van.
What follows is one of the most bizarre games ever played on film. The men in the van taunt Durga and Kabeer, make salacious insinuations about their relationship, bully and terrorise them in various ways, yet continuously claim that they are concerned about their safety. Even as they prepare to pounce on the protagonist, they insist on addressing her as “Chechi” and repeatedly warn her of the dangers outside their vehicle.
It is a sport that is at once weird and fascinating, a frighteningly symbolic depiction of the protector-cum-predator role that men – and female allies of patriarchy – play in the lives of women. Durga and Kabeer’s claustrophobia in that van is almost palpable. The men troubling them are another avatar of the khap panchayat issuing directives to curb women, purportedly to save us from marauding men; the husband who will not tolerate a stranger eyeing his wife but thinks nothing of raping her himself day after day.
Game-playing is a device Sashidharan seems to favour. In his last film, Ozhivudivasathe Kali (An Off-Day Game), a group of men on a break in a forest lodge hold a little contest among themselves that reeks of their patriarchal, caste and class prejudices. A woman escapes their clutches by the skin of her teeth, but their match has fatal consequences for another person on the scene.
In S Durga, we do not actually see the men physically molesting Durga, but the film is designed to fill us with a sense of foreboding on her behalf – an unsettling feeling that rears its head the second we see her standing alone at night on that desolate street, a feeling women know all too well.
Parallel to Durga and Kabeer’s journey, a religious procession unfolds in the film. Even before we meet these two, we are shown a tableau bearing a statue of a demon-slaying avatar of Goddess Shakti. Around her, a procession of live men offer up their bodies for torture. They pierce spears through their mouths and dangle from hooks passed through their skin.
These religious devotees are relayed to us unrelentingly, in documentary style, for almost 10 minutes at the start of S Durga. It is as difficult to watch them as it is to see the men in the van doing a dance of intimidation around Durga and Kabeer.
The divine Shakti is known in her multiple manifestations as Durga, Kali, Bhadrakali, Parvathi and more. Even as the pageant in the film kicks off, a male worshipper briefly harasses a woman bystander. His action is so fleeting and seemingly jestful, that you will miss it if you blink an eye. It is one of many telling moments in this multi-layered film.
S Durga’s overt messaging is about the hypocrisy of men who will pay tribute to a mythical female being even as they suppress and assault her mortal equivalents. For all her legendary ferocity, Durga in that parade and in houses of worship is but a statue that does not inconvenience earthly males in the way assertive, rights-conscious, articulate earthly females do.
Sashidharan’s is an all-encompassing feminism that alerts us to the perils of patriarchy for uncooperative men, and recognises this system as a sub-set of all marginalisation. A solitary Durga would have drawn attention because it is deemed unacceptable for her to be on her own, but here in S Durga she is judged for being with a man, she is also judged for her background and his religious identity.
Her name is Hindu. Her speech suggests that she is a north Indian, which in south India immediately attracts another form of othering. His name implies that he is Muslim, which brings up another volley of prejudice. No one says the ugly words “love jihad” but it hangs thick in the air.
(Possible spoilers ahead)
Kabeer initially introduces himself by the Hindu name Kannan to the occupants of the van – an instinctive self-protection mechanism adopted by many minorities, but most especially by Muslims in a contemporary world engulfed by Islamophobia.
The most poignant commentary on the helplessness of persecuted communities comes from a scene in which two householders hear a hubbub and step out of their gates to find out what is going on, see Durga and Kabeer surrounded in the distance, and quietly get back inside.
This is a film that should compel even the most sensitive viewers among us to introspect because, without wanting to, we might find ourselves getting frustrated with Durga and Kabeer, and unwittingly asking questions that victim-blamers always ask. Why on earth did you get into that vehicle? Get out. Don’t get out. Can you not see how treacherous that road is? If you must elope, must you do so at this hour? Go to the police. Oh wait, don’t.
Here’s the thing: the road, the van, the home, the police station – when each of these spaces is fraught with risks for women and inter-community couples, when those who are not active participants in injustice choose to be silent spectators, where are they/we to go?
My one problem with the film is its sound design. I realise it is meant to be an accurate representation of a highway with all its accompanying sounds, but the strain on the ears becomes too much in places as we struggle to hear whispers vying with loud music and passing vehicles. That said, S Durga is compelling despite this challenge. That it was made without a written script makes it even more admirable.
In case you missed the headlines it has earned so far, for the record, S Durga is the film formerly known as Sexy Durga, which Smriti Irani’s Information and Broadcasting Ministry did cartwheels to axe from IFFI last year. After a series of ups and downs – awards in India and abroad, clashes with the Ministry and the Central Board of Film Certification, and a favourable intervention by the Kerala High Court – it was finally released in mainstream theatres in Kerala last month and has come to halls outside the state this week.
Although the sarkar and the Board claimed that the title Sexy Durga would hurt Hindu sentiments, a viewing of the film reveals their more likely, unstated concerns. S Durga is not just an unnerving commentary on patriarchy, it is a cutting indictment of a society and establishment that perpetuate, participate in or unprotestingly accept all forms of social prejudice.
Rating (out of five stars): ****
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost:
Related article by Anna M.M. Vetticad: Sexy Durga or S Durga? How the government’s reaction proves the verypoint the film makes
Poster courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S_Durga