An Indian film won the coveted Hivos Tiger Award this year at Rotterdam Film Festival, one the most prominent international arena for world cinema. Quite expectedly not many Indians are aware having managed no time out of their routine diet of commercial flicks. With no offence to the mainstream cinema, this ignorance and indifference hurts even more when from a country which holds itself in high regard for its artistic exuberance. However, things do not end here. The very same film without being publicized and given its due is being held back from screening in the film festivals around the country. Amazing, isn’t it?
The film is “Sexy Durga” and its director in question is Sanal Kumar Sasidharan. Sanal’s film is first shelved to “Malayalam Cinema Today” section in IFFK’17 clearly denying the film its due attention and now exemption application for the scheduled screening at MAMI’17 is being denied by the I&B Ministry.
The case brings back the question around how the regressive sensibility of mass Indian audience around cinematic aesthetics can be related back to the government and how that has always been the case. Things are getting worse by the day and like all other facets of our daily lives in this aspect as well we are heading towards being another Iran.
It’s no wonder that Sanal has come down to be a prey of this pretentious structure which thrives on censorship of expressions. His films have always dealt with the same. The three feature old director from Trivandrum has already engaged in a clear discourse around the limitations, pretentions and horrific underlying violence which forms the crux of the Indian society.
Morning showed the day as always. Back in 2001 when Sanal worked on his short “Athisayalokam(Wonder World)” he contemplated on all these themes and wondered about the lurking violence which forms the basis of the world and how human society has adjusted to ignoring most forms of this encompassing violence and be scared of the rest. 16 years later with “Sexy Durga” Sanal will return to this very theme once again. In “Athisayalokam” the background narration suggests “…who told you to see everything, Eyes are not for seeing everything, my friend” and ponders how human beings thrive on the sense of competition and crave for reaching targets. We see Sachin Tendulkar hitting boundaries on the TV screen and an Indian mass rejoicing over it. One can instantly relate to a country where sport personas are considered “God” and property damages are common over lost matches.
The next available work from Sanal comes after a long gap of 11 years. “Frog” (2012) is another short where this man uncovers violence and the few frames of reckless stalking of a couple in the film might remind one about “Sexy Durga” once again (off course for the likes of mine who are fascinated by his features have later gone back to the older shorts).
In 2014 Sanal comes out with his first feature as in “Oraalppokkam(Six Feet High)” getting him the Kerala State Award for Best Director. “Oraalppokaam” confirms Sanal’s craftsmanship over the medium in addition to his social consciousness. A crowd funded film made in almost shoe string budget looks international and strong work from the behind camera crew is instantly evident. The film is Sanal’s critique on the intellectual, his take on how progressiveness if coming from behind a mask gets beaten in its own game of false vanity. Mahi (Prakash Bare) and Maya’s (Meena Kandasamy) relationship crash the moment their egos clash. While they are post-modern enough to be not bound by formal commitments, the conscious self-esteem cannot break free from the same barriers eventually drifting them apart. Setting up this premise the movie gets into a road-movie format when Mahi goes out searching for Maya, lost amidst the 2013 Uttarakhand floods. The search for the ideal, be spiritual as within the hermits Mahi encounter in his journey or be his supposedly intellectual self is juxtaposed against nature to contrast human triviality and suggest how delusional the very concept of utopia is. Near the end of the film, Mahi takes over from Maya to ride better safely on the same harsh roads only to similar consequences if not worse. The unjustified human ego without consideration for its path of travel takes him nowhere. The film however goes back to its very first frame of a frail naked human life pitted against mighty snow-capped mountains in reinforcing limitations of human capabilities so as to advocate how nature should be a human shelter and not a toy to control or try defeating. What better cinematic portrayal of the Kedarnath mishap could we have with the very premise setting the context. Maya, the character name comes out to be a careful choice while poet cum activist Meena Kandasamy’s casting makes it a more interesting one. Such inclusions from the real into the narrative of the reel are obvious delights for an attentive cinephile and separates out one director from the rest.
Sanal came out with “Ozhivu Divasathe Kali (An Off-Day Game)” in 2015, probably his most intense and politically aware film till date.The film is quite an achievement in more the few aspects of film-making and a stunning film in all. The camera playing the dumb witness, the superlative ensemble cast, the unscripted free-flowing dialogues, the layered script with continuous political under-currents based out of caste, color, misogyny were aptly put and delivered. The ticking bomb tension builds in somewhat Hanekish fashion while deceptively comic sequences keeps playing one after the other, preparing the patient audience for the tiptoeing blast. The hypocrisy of the outward composure in characters or atmosphere is perhaps Sanal’s favourite theme which returns. Not that it was entirely missing in “Oraalppokaam” considering how Sanal needed to include the few minute-long subplot involving Mahi, Rosa and her husband. But in “Ozhivu Divasathe Kali” the motif finds a ferocious tearing apart, a serious dig down at the surface serenity to reach violent underneath of the Indian society. The film almost entirely deals with debates, liquor and misogyny and thus while the title suggests “an off day” it becomes quite a routine day for a patriarchal Indian. While all the past ventures from the director dealt with universal themes with local context, “Ozhivu Divasathe Kali” turns to be purely Indian in its critique of the society which is perhaps its biggest accomplishment. Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle”(2016) and Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman”(2016) made in the same year assessed the intellectual bourgeois of its respective countries in different positions so as to identify which is Paris and which is Tehran. “Ozhivu Divasathe Kali” too whether in its use of a sudden “wife-beating” song or its debates around physical relationships or contexts of caste politics identifies itself to be from the subcontinent and the characters narrows it down to India. Based on the short story by R.Unni, the film is also reminiscent of Apurba Kishore Bir’s “Aranyaka” (1994) in its premise and equally horrific climax. “Aranyaka” a far lesser film devoid of “Ozhivu Divasathe Kali’s” rich making, similarly ends in a ghastly realization of the ‘survival of the fittest (read rich/powerful/crude in today’s context) with the backdrop of the jungle adding to an allegorical layer. The lash green jungles in “Ozhivu Divasathe Kali” or the misty green hills in “Frog” might just be the same backdrop that Sanal brings in.
One wonders where did Sanal go wrong this year that the same state which had awarded him twice, the same ministry that passed his previous films with almost zero cuts are trying to resist his new creation. No prizes for guessing, off course it’s in the name. Without any check on the context, any idea of the content “Sexy Durga” is on the verge of having no screening in its own country just because it has sexy in its title ahead of the name of one Hindu goddess. It’s only a namesake in the context of the film but yes, it’s might well be an intelligent allegory once again. After all, be it calling a routine as an off-day or teasing the human limitation putting it’s stature against the mountains in “Sex Feet High”, Sanal has always been satirical in his titles.
“In a country where hundreds of women named Durga, Sarasvathi, Parvathi, Lakshmi, Narayani are on the streets, homeless and helpless, if someone name a character as Durga in a film, suddenly all the idiots and fanatics look into their faith and beliefs. All of them suddenly feel that their religious sentiments are wounded. But when any one of these Durga on the street suffer rapes, molestation, violence and atrocities these morons becomes blind and dumb. They never feel that the attack is on their goddesses. what an irony. What a hypocrisy!
Anyway, I appreciate the “caring” I&B ministry in helping these idiots in protecting their “religious sentiments”. But let me say this: My Durga is not your powerful goddess. My Durga is the common Indian girl on the street, for whom you have no sentiments at all”, Sanal argues.
This is not the first time we see this, this is not the first time we find the government succumbing to such fanatics. Only last year the MAMI special screening of vintage classic “Jago Hua Savera” had to be cancelled due to its Pakistani origin. Be very recent instances of “Udta Punjab (2016)” or “Lipstick under my Burkha (2017)”, be yesteryear controversies around “Garm Hava (1974)” or “Kissa Kursee Ka (1978)”, India has a dangerous history of film censorship. The progress we are making is only synthetic. We have now adjusted to the objectification around and don’t mind changing lyrics of the like “Sexy, sexy mujhe log bole”(Khuddar;1994) to go “Baby, baby..” but with ‘sexy’ and ‘Durga’ coming together its sheer blasphemy. India offers its citizens a comfortable illusion of liberty, democracy and equality but a closer inspection offers ugly truths. Guess what! that’s the very theme of “Ozhivu Divasathe Kali” and this never ending loop of continual violence again and again and again is the crux for his next, “Sexy Durga”.
A limited few who had an opportunity to watch “Sexy Durga” abroad and I had chance to speak with wondered why Durga and her friend being continuously harassed by a group of men keeps on repeating in the film and the story doesn’t move forward from there. But that’s the whole point, that’s the reality of the Indian society. The same violence, the same misogyny, the same objectifications returns in a loop and there’s no way out of it. Culmination of one case instantly leads to another’s beginning exactly as Durga and his friend faces them in the hands of the same group over and over only changing in intensity and vigor.
The other interesting theme here is a reiteration from “Athisayalokam”. We find the extreme physical violence in the name of religious rituals being overlooked by the mass attendees of the Garudan Thookkam festival, being desensitized to it over decades. While there were considerable walk-outs during these scenes by the Aussie mass in the Melbourne screening I attended, it’s almost certain that the Indian audience even if alerted won’t be flabbergasted over these frames. However, the turmoil that Durga goes through even though it doesn’t involve direct physical violence would invigorate the Indian audience instantly. This selective acknowledgement of violence, being adjusted to most and only the rest finding a place in discussions is what Sanal tries to prepare in this contrast. The country in its diversity and paradoxes all around is so very adjusted to everyday violence growing in circles, that we have lost sense of recognition to most of it. It reminds of sequences from this year bigtime Emmy winner “A Handmaid’s Tale” where two handmaidens discuss their fate by the riverside while rebels are being hanged from the wall just beside them. Thus, after Ozhivu Divasathe Kali”, “Sexy Durga” again turns out to be a very Indian film in its content and context.At one point, even characters from “Ozhivudivasathe Kali” return only to express that things are happening in continuum.
Themes recur but “Sexy Durga” brings in fresh attempts in camerawork by creating long and dynamic shots, psychedelic lighting and atmospheric stylizations kinds of which we didn’t see yet in Sanal’s filmography. The behind the camera efforts and grip over narrative form reaffirms the fact that here’s a man who is not just bogged down by contents of protest but also has a lot to offer pure cinematically.
In “Athisayalokam”, his first available work Sanal ended his world view freeing a yellow butterfly from a spider’s web to fly free. In his last “Sexy Durga” even though hopes come down to be extremely bleak, we are constantly reminded of a train that is running very close to Durga and could by her means out of the nightmare. We never get to see Durga catching the train but Sanal acknowledges its presence. The promise this young filmmaker holds for India and to the rich lineage of Malayalam cinema needs to be supported, sustained and cared. The country needs to assist him and not necessarily its government.