There is an ominous feeling that resides in oneself when traveling through a lone, dark road with few or no people around.
It is an uncomfortable disposition, one that causes an individual to feel vulnerability at every corner. That sense of defenselessness is amplified when traveling with a loved one in a locale that is unfamiliar and strange. That is exactly the psychological sensibility that director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan successfully impose on his viewers in his newest film “Sexy Durga.”
The Rotterdam Film Festival Hivos Tiger award-winner (the first Indian film to do so) tells the story of couple Durga (Rajshri Deshpande) and Kabeer (Kannan Nayar) as they attempt to hitchhike their way from Kerala in southern India to the north. While Durga is a northern girl (which is mentioned frequently by the other men of the story in a predatory fashion) Kabeer appears to be a local who is desperate to elope with her. Soon after their ill-advised hitchhiking, they are picked up by a group of seedy, menacing young men who incessantly ask the woman for her name and their plans. The dread begins to fill the small van they are traveling in as the uneasy tension builds over time. But soon enough, the lines begin to blur as to their allegiance and moral compass.
With wonderfully awe-inspiring camera work from Pratah Joseph that is reminiscent of Emmanuel Lubezki’s sweepingly mobile cinematography, “Sexy Durga” is a cinematic triumph that relishes in its meditative qualities like few films do. From the wildly elaborate camera movements to the anxiety-inducing long takes, the camera is most certainly the star of this pensively brooding film.
Sasidharan’s rather bold move to not have a set script, production notes or any other production-based necessities seemingly pays off. While there are moments in which the dialogue becomes derivative and repetitive, it seldom ever derails the film’s pace and drive. The frequently asked questions, constant pleas to be let out and incessantly oppressive personalities that meander in-and-out of the film all work to let the strain and terror fester in one’s mind.
The main plot is sandwiched by the beautiful documentary footage of the “Garudan Thookkam” and a ceremony in which men walk across fire. The former is a celebration of the Goddess Kali wherein men are hung by metallic hooks and driven through the main thoroughfare. It is a brutal sequence—wherein the audience was audibly squirming and gasping—that seems to be highlighting the necessity of pain in one’s life in order to savor the good. It appears to be the same sort of pain (albeit psychological instead of physical) that Kabeer and Durga are enduring in order to finally find salvation—whatever that salvation might be.
The harmony of good and bad seem to be a main thematic driving force behind the film’s narrative. While the couple appear to be eloping for a chance at a new loving life, the audience is never privileged to discover their intentions. Instead, we are made to assume the plight and subsequent aims of the characters. And though this appears to be a rather lethargic approach by Sasidharan, it is anything but. For the ambiguity of our characters’ motivations is just as rich, if not more so, than the exposure of it.
Sasidharan’s powerfully tense nocturnal road movie is yet another great addition to the modern-day lexicon of Indian cinema. However, many filmgoers might be deterred by the film’s propensity toward art house sensibilities, it is a picture that rewards its viewers with a profound focus on cinematography and excellent stylizations. Sasidharan’s “Sexy Durga” is a triumphant addition to the filmmaker’s rather nascent career, cementing him in as a new individual in the increasingly globalized cinematic world.
“Sexy Durga” was screened as part of the New Directors/New Films Festival.