Sanal Sasidharan directs Sexy Durga, an exceptional thriller from India
Man is a dangerous beast.
Long ago, before the time of cinema, before the time of television, and certainly before the time of the Internet, the Indian subcontinent was a land mostly known as a fruitful place for the nightmares of western man to bloom. Tales about darkest India and its immense jungles filled with man-eating beasts spread around the world thanks to authors like Rudyard Kipling whose The Jungle Book and Gunga Din served as many people's only introduction to this mysterious land for many decades. These books painted a picture of India as a land of noble savages, often serving as slaves for white masters, or in the case of Gunga Din, murderous Kali worshipers.
In the '80s, long after India had been demystified by the advent of mass media, Steven Spielberg resurrected the specter of the Thugee in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which starred legendary Indian villain Amrish Puri as Mola Ram, the leader of a Thugee cult intent on stealing Jones's beating heart from his chest.
Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's Sexy Durga also deals with bloodthirsty savages in darkest India, but in this case they don't meet in caves, or try to rip the beating hearts from chests of non-believers. They are everywhere, everyday common men, and that makes them all the scarier. When I mentioned at the outset that man is a dangerous beast, I didn't mean as a species, I meant as a gender. Sexual violence in India is a serious problem, and with the growing feminist movements on the ground, some men have begun to grow frustrated that they can no longer impose their wills upon women in the dark without fear of repercussions.
The recent spate of high profile rapes, sexual murders, and molestations in places like Delhi (Nirbaya), and Bangalore has shined a light on an issue that has always been there, but that doesn't mean that the night gets less dark for some, and Sexy Durga is an exploration of that fear in a way that only cinema can provide.
The film opens in the midst of preparation for Garudan Thookam, a celebration in Kerala in which men suspend themselves from hooks in order to fly through the streets like the mythical Garuda, the earthly vehicle of lord Vishnu, who slakes the blood thirst of the goddess Kali. Men pierce their flesh with hooks as a way of communing with their gods; arrows through the cheeks, hooks through the legs and backs, and dances in religious ecstasy fill the squares in front of Kali temples in cities, as far as I can tell, all performed by men as a combination of religious fervor and a display of toughness.
From this celebration is birthed a pair of star-crossed lovers, Kabeer and Durga, who are attempting to flee their lives in Kerala to resettle elsewhere. They hitch a ride from some men in a van who promise to get them to the railway station, but it quickly becomes clear that this is not going to be an easy journey. For the next eighty minutes Durga and Kabeer find themselves at the mercy of a cross section of Indian entitled machismo from which escape is unlikely. This isn't explicitly a horror film, but any woman can identify with the terror of being at the mercy of men like this, even for a moment, and that is what makes Sexy Durga so scary.
With Sexy Durga, director Sasidharan lashes out at the unchecked violence against women in his country in the most effective way that art can muster, by putting the viewer in the passenger seat of this terrifying ride. It would've been one thing if Sexy Durga had been the story of Durga alone, scared for her life on a trip from which escape was impossible, but the choice to put Kabeer in the seat next to her was a stroke of genius on the part of the director, because now he hooks everyone. By making Sexy Durga the story of the couple, Sasidharan makes sure that no one watching the film can check out of the nightmare, both women and the men who seek to protect them are the victims, and that is a revolutionary paradigm shift when it comes to Indian thrillers.
Sexy Durga is not a horror film. There is no explicit violence, there are no murders, there is no gory violence, and there is no supernatural force oppressing the leads. Sexy Durga is scarier than any of those things because for the entire eighty-five minute run time of the film, this couple is put through a legitimately terrifying experience with which anyone can relate. It isn't about the money shot, it is about exploiting our basest and most outrageous fears, it's about the everyday fear with which everyone, even the ones perpetrating the violence, can identify.
The director uses some familiar tricks of the trade to keep the audience on their edges of their seats, but none of these veer anywhere outside of frighteningly plausible. The couple manages to escape their would-be captors, but they only manage to stumble into a different kind of danger, the cycle of fear restarts, and we are again at the mercy of those who would keep us fearful. It is Sexy Durga's restraint in keeping these terrifying encounters grounded in reality that gives the film an edge over similarly themed horrors like Deliverance, Eden Lake or even the excellent Hindi thriller NH10 from a couple of years back. The idea is that this could happen not only in your town, but to you or someone you love, and in fact probably already has.
The fact that Sexy Durga has already faced some protest in India regarding the use of what's seen as a pejorative term to describe the goddess Durga in the title is indicative of the kind of atmosphere that still pervades some easily agitated corners of Indian society. The content of the film is all but completely justified in this agitated reaction to the title from people who have never even seen the film. Being offended is a full time job these days, and in India there are entire organizations and movements who sole reason for existing is to express their outrage at supposed affronts to their religious and cultural identities by things as stupid as a film's title.
This culture of outrage and unchecked machismo begets a culture of violence, and in Sexy Durga we begin to see some of the results of this culture in which those to perpetrate the violence feel free to inflict their will upon others with impunity. The film is an unrelenting and intense thriller, a frightening film made all the more affecting by its proximity to the everyday reality of millions of women around the world, only this time it isn't only women who have reason to be afraid.
Sexy Durga is a chilling and bold accomplishment in the evolution of the Indian thriller. While Anurag Kashyap's Raman Raghav 2.0 took audiences on a tour through the dark mind of a serial killer looking for his soulmate, Sasidharan's film takes us down the roads we all travel, and a fiercely grim ride it is. This is not a film about Durga and Kabeer, it is a film about you and me and our fears realized onscreen. It is astonishing in its bluntness and the fact that it needs no embellishment to make its point, but above all, it's scary as hell and that's real.