‘Sexy Durga’: Film Review | Rotterdam 2017

Indian director-editor Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s unscripted road movie ‘Sexy Durga’ won top honors at the prestigious, long-running Dutch festival.

A nightmarish experience in more ways than one, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s improvised, nocturnal Indian road movie Sexy Durga forces protagonists and audience alike through a grueling ordeal with questionable rewards.  Powered by a punkishly provocative energy that’s easier to admire than enjoy, this deliberately unpleasant depiction of man’s casual and cruel inhumanity to man — and woman — nabbed the $43,000 Tiger Award at the just-concluded International Film Festival Rotterdam.

The 66th film to nab this honor (from 1995-2015 awarded to three movies ex-aequo), it’s a surprisingly belated first Rotterdam winner from the sub-continent. This groundbreaking success will doubtless open further festival doors — the misleading, catchpenny title certainly won’t do it any harm on that front — without cracking the purses of risk-averse theatrical distributors in the currently tough art house climate.

The Bottom Line

A long, bumpy, noisy road … to nowhere.

Having tried the improvisation route with his sophomore outing An Off-Day Game (2015), Kumar Sasidharan takes an even riskier approach with Sexy Durga, on which there was reportedly no screenplay and not even a pre-set narrative. The tale that results from this recipe turns out, perhaps predictably, to be bare-bones simple: A thirtyish couple, Kabeer (Kannan Nayar) and Durga (Rajshri Deshpande), he local and she from the north, are fleeing towards a railway station at night in a rural part of Kerala, southern India. The pair, who we intuit are escaping to avoid the wrath of his disapproving relatives, hitch-hike a ride with four hyper-energetic young dudes (Vedh, Sujeesh KS, Arun Sol, Bilas Nair) in a small van.

The chatty mood in this vehicle — pimped with a deafening sound system and flashing neon party lights inside and out — rapidly turns from jocular to sinister, putting the meek travelers very much ill at ease. Further encounters along the road, including with a bunch of domineering, nosy, corrupt cops, only serve to amp up the tension and dread — a mounting sense that no escape is possible.

Shot in widescreen by Pratah Joseph, Sexy Durga is for much of its running time an atmospheric evocation of dangerous darkness in the middle of nowhere, alternating between claustrophobic shots inside the van and tantalizing, sometimes striking glimpses of the expansive, sparsely lit countryside beyond.

The dialogue is quite numbingly repetitive, as can often occur when uninspired improv is allowed to run its course by an indulgent director, to the extent that the vibe sometimes edges — intentionally? — from the grimly downbeat to the blackly comic. None of the individuals on view really emerge as characters per se, registering as little more than thinly sketched ciphers — which crucially makes it hard to sympathize with Durga and Kabeer’s desperate plight.

Director-editor Kumar Sasidharan bookends the main body of the action with extended, documentary footage of elaborate, noisy, colorful rituals taking place in a teemingly busy urban area. These are examples of annual “Garudan Thookkam” (Eagle Hanging) events, dedicated to the goddess Kali, occurring in several locations around southern Kerala.

Participants spear their faces with sharp wires and are dangled from gaudily decorated, slowly trundling trucks, suspended with spikes through the thick skin of their back. In the final “reel,” the director includes images of a fire-walking ceremony in which men willingly submit to pain for spiritual purposes — just as Sexy Durga itself forces us to witness oppressive, psychologically horrible situations in the name of … art?

An opening title card quoting the Ramayana suggests a particular concern with the abuse of women in patriarchal, traditional societies such as India, though the film itself deals only in disappointingly cursory fashion with such a dauntingly complex issue. Punctuated by an intermittent, assaultive thrash-metal soundtrack supervised by “Basil C J” that includes several cuts from prominent Kerala thrash-metallers Chaos, Sexy Durga is in the end just another exasperatingly elaborate illustration of Jean-Paul Sartre’s timeless dictum, “Hell is other people.”

Production company: NIV Art Movies
Cast: Rajshri Deshpande, Kannan Nayar, Vedh, Sujeesh KS, Arun Sol, Bilas Nair
Director-editor: Sanal Kumar Sasidharan
Producers: Aruni Mathew, Shaji Mathew
Cinematographer: Prathap Joseph
Production designer: Murukan A
Composer: Basil C J
Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (competition)
Sales: NIV Art Movies, New Delhi, India (niv@nivartcentre.com)

In Hindi, Malayalam

85 minutes