In Indian director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's Sexy Durga, fear is the protagonist. While violence keeps lurking beneath the film's surface, it is fear that leads the film on the foreground.
On the night of Garudan Thookkam, a Hindu religious festival, in which men pierce their skin and suspend themselves from metal hooks to fly like a Garuda (eagle) to please the Goddess Durga, a young woman and her lover elope from their houses to leave Kerala and settle down in a far-away (or faraway) city. Stranded on a deserted state highway, the couple – Durga and Kabeer – hitch a ride from two strangers in a van to the nearby railway station. The drive turns into a nightmare as the men start harassing the couple, threatening to sexually violate Durga. And the night stretches out endlessly before the young lovers who can't seem to escape from the looming danger.
Anyone who understands the gravity of gender-based violence in India, would know how life-threatening an Indian road can be at night for a woman traveler. Every man on the road takes the shape of a beast, ready to pounce on women whose immediate identity is reduced to a defenseless object of desire. Anushka Sharma's 2015 thriller NH10 and Sameer Thahir's 2016 film Kali dealt with a similar theme, but Sasidharan's narrative is cleverer on many levels.
With the camera fixed in and around the van, the filmmaker weaves the plot with the help of pieces of dialogue that proceed organically. Although the violence in the film is never explicit, one could feel it everywhere on the screen, always. Even as the captors, with a sly smile, reassure the couple that they would be safely let off, the subtle ups and downs in their conversation hint that it might not be so. The fear that grips Kabeer and Durga quickly creeps into the viewers, putting the audience in the passenger seat of the white Maruti Vvan, letting them experience the unfolding horror.
Sasidharan builds up tension at a perfect pace, inserting narrrative pauses in the right places. More than once, the couple sneaks out of the van and tries to reach the destination on their own. But each time, they are forced to return to the hands of their tormentors. When the van stops at a police check-post, one almost hopes that the couple finds some respite from the ordeal. It is interesting to see how power equations change in this sequence – the men, who were perpetrators till then, suddenly become victims, and the violence becomes state-backed.
The film uses the couple's inter-religious status and Durga's North Indian identity to complicate the situation further. "Aren't you taking her to Pakistan?" two bike-riders on the road ask Kabeer, on learning of his Muslim identity.
The film cleverly portrays how baffling male egos can be – the eagerness to be protectors and guardians, and how society blindly approves of this bloated machismo. The film's opening sequence, a show of countless bare male bodies, pierced and put through intense pain, is brilliant, although slightly long-winded. In a festival that celebrates the power of a goddess, it is masculinity that rules the roost. The men dance in scanty clothes, display their physical toughness, and take the centre stage, as women devotees politely watch from a corner.
In a later sequence, this religious parade is subtly juxtaposed with the young couple's trauma, indicating how deep-rooted is the society's celebration of virility and machismo.
However, there are images and verbal exchanges in the film that come across glaringly loud. Like the idol of Durga kept on the dashboard of the van and the conversations woven around it. When the commentary on faith and the gender equation inside religions has already been made, this overbearing silhouette of the Durga idol becomes a jarring presence.
The cast, which consists mostly of first-time actors, performs flawlessly. Sasidharan's love for what could be described as 'camera acrobatics' repeats in Sexy Durga, where he tries a lot to play with the camera movements, making it party to the whole unfolding drama than just be an observer. Nevertheless, it is difficult to say if it works in favour of the film.
Sexy Durga finishes off as an edgy road thriller, the dark taste of which lingers on even after the curtain falls. That Sasidharan's pulled off this feat on a shoe-string budget is testimony to the power of intelligent writing and restrained direction.