Bright irises, like those of a panther study us from the dark. Suddenly, an engine loudly revs up and the headlights turn on in a blinding flash. A van adorned with garish neon lights barrels towards us. The scene is visually self-indulgent and yet it wordlessly captures everything about Sexy Durga, a new entrant to the road movie genre by filmmaker Sanal Kumar Sasidharan.
The Malayalam language indie has already gathered accolades on the festival circuit. In February, it won the top honour at the Rotterdam Film Festival. In June, it closed the London Indian Film Festival and played at the Valencia International Film Festival. Recently, it has also attracted quite a lot of notoriety, over its ‘blasphemous’ title. Denied an exemption certification by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, it aired with 21 audio mutes under the unfortunate title S Durga at the 19th Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival.
Controversy aside, Sexy Durga isn’t designed for provocation but introspection. It belongs to a long tradition of highway horror; passive leads find themselves entwined with untrustworthy strangers while the threat of violence looms large. Refreshingly, unlike many of its forbearers, the movie’s depravity is implied rather than foregrounded.
It’s a smart choice that allows the movie to better focus its lens on the process of toxic masculinity rather than its outcome. It’s also completely to Sasidharan’s credit that Sexy Durga sustains itself as a squirm inducing mood piece rather than a lurid thriller.
A young woman stands expectantly on the side of a desolate road at night in an unnamed part of Kerala. She is shortly joined by a man. Presumably they can’t book an Uber, so they hail down a ride from a van and ask for a lift to the station, unaware of just how protracted this journey will turn out to be. The two curious men in the front seats lob questions at this reticent couple. The man curtly answers while cutting calls on his phone but the woman betrays her background by whispering to her paramour in Hindi. He is Kabir and she is Durga. The movie doesn’t furnish, nor does it need to, their reason for going on the run.
While Kabir and Durga are our laconic audience surrogates, the men in front are the film’s focal characters. They make crude comments about Durga, crack jibes about men referring to their lovers as sisters and keep the dome light on, denying the protagonists the anonymity they covet. Pretty soon the journey gets unbearably uncomfortable and Kabir and Durga demand to be let out. They are coaxed back into the van on the pleas of their ride givers who insist they have mothers and sisters at home. It’s a pattern that repeats itself. At various points through the night, the couple finds reasons to get out and get back in – as the men stop to finish a shady deal, when the male duo multiplies into a quartet, and the van owners indulge in drinking. Yet, there is no safety to be found even outside the confines of the van.
The police are callous and corrupt. Two men in immaculate white dhotis get into a scuffle with them. A ride that starts out as a choice becomes a compulsion. Each time, Kabir and Durga steadily cede their power and agency, crawling back like a wounded animal to their captors. All along, the railway tracks stretch across the side of the road, a cruel cosmic reminder of their Sisyphean quest.
The road movie is an American staple that encompasses multiple genres. In his seminal book of essays Horror at the Drive-in: Essays in Popular Americana, Gary D. Rhodes, the late American film historian and filmmaker suggests that three characteristics of the postwar road movie is the dissolution of family, passive characters who have things happen to them, and the displacement of the protagonist’s identity on to their vehicle. In multiple movies, including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Badlands, the roads promise freedom but also illuminate the amorality of the characters who traverse it.
In recent years, Indian filmmakers have looked at the road thriller to tell disparate stories about violence and gender. In Highway (2014) the female protagonist finds freedom on the road with her kidnappers. In NH10 (2015), the highway literally intersects the lives of an urban woman and a group of patriarchal rural characters. Last year’s Malayalam release Kali, which Sexy Durga momentarily reminded me of, smooths over its male protagonist’s explosive anger issues, seeing it as a means to an end.
What might irk some is that the eponymous character in Sexy Durga is a cipher with almost no agency. To reiterate the loneliness and the pervasive threat that surrounds her, almost all the other people on the road are men. Yet it is her presence that unmasks this cast of male characters.
In the movie, even the cops are cut from the same piece of cloth as the men in the van. They insult the platinum coloured hair of the van’s driver and talk down another drunk driver before letting him drive home. We also briefly see a girl being berated by the police in the background, for seemingly doing nothing else but being on a bike at night. Even Kabir is indicted. He positions himself as Durga’s guardian and rejects her uneasiness about the ride till it’s too late.
Sexy Durga is familiar territory for Sasidharan who deftly captures, even in his previous feature (the excellent Ozhivudivasathe Kali), the way men behave and reassert their masculinity around each other. In the movie’s hypnotic plot unrelated opening, a contingent of men ready themselves for the Garudan Thookam ritual. Cheeks are impaled. Hooks dig into the flesh of young men’s backs. The women are all bystanders. The irony that this entirely male religious performance is for a female religious deity is not lost.
One keeps waiting for Sexy Durga to kick into high gear, to indulge our own voyeurism and see our leads suffer humiliation or give us that moment of catharsis with a horrific burst of violence but it is much too intelligent to indulge our whims. The feeling of dread at night lurking around every hairpin bend is intangible and the movie captures that adroitly. Sexy Durga seems to suggest that the road may not be the escape route we envision but the maze that leads us straight back into the jaws of the beast.