‘S Durga’: The Film the I&B Ministry Does Not Want You to See
Contrary to general perception, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's Malayalam film, S Durga (earlier Sexy Durga) has little to do with the titular goddess. A north Indian migrant, Durga and a Keralite, Kabir elope at midnight and their plan to hitch a ride to a railroad station goes dreadfully awry.
The narrative is interspersed with footage of an actual Garudan Thookkam ceremony in honour of the goddess Kali, in which men endure excruciating rituals like walking on scorching coals and hanging by weighty iron hooks inserted into the skin. A visceral road movie, the highway horror makes a dark social commentary on the difference between the way goddesses are worshipped in India and the way women are treated.
Without being exploitative or titillating, S Durga cinematically explores this irony. The film mines the relentlessness of imminent terror. It hints at persistent threats of violence and plays on the panic of the couple, without an actual depiction of violence. The strangers who promise to give them a ride make their journey infinitely uncomfortable with crude comments and other tactics. The confines of the van become claustrophobic for the audience and give a petrifying glimpse into an Indian woman’s world out of her comfort zone.
S Durga bagged the top honour at the Rotterdam Film Festival 2017 - the Hivos Tiger Award, closed the London Indian Film Festival and was also screened at the Valencia International Film Festival. It received rave reviews from the likes of Hollywood Reporter internationally and won critical acclaim in India as well.
Back home, though, the ‘blasphemous’ title of the globally commended film stirred up a hornets nest and it was denied exemption by the Information and Broadcast ministry to be screened at the 19th Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI).
After clearance from the Central Board of Film Certification with 21 audio mutes and a U/A certificate, the film’s name was changed to from Sexy Durga to S Durga, so as to not injure religious sentiments and was screened at MAMI, last month. Petitions were signed and social media posts were shared in support of the film. It retains its original name and will play without censors when streamed online in due course. But there still seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel for the film.
The film has run into fresh trouble as the I&B Ministry dropped it from the 48th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) along with Ravi Jadhav’s Nude, to be held at Goa. The switch is said to have been made without consulting the 13-member jury.
Scriptwriter Apurva Asrani, a jury member also commended the film.
With dialogue in Hindi and Malayalam and a running time of 85 minutes, the cast of S Durga includes Rajshri Deshpande (of Angry Indian Goddesses fame), Pradeep Kumar, Vishnu Vedh, Sujeesh K. S., Kannan Nair, Bilas Nair and Arun Sol. Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's earlier film, Ozhivudivasathe Kali (An Off-Day Game) won the FIPRESCI Award for Best Malayalam Film at the International Film Festival of Kerala 2015 and Best Film at the Kerala State Film Awards. The film is about five friends coming together on a holiday, on account of elections in Kerala and talking about caste, dignity of labour and sexual violence amongst other things. Oraalppokkam, also directed by Sasidharan also won praise from critics for being a part of the pathbreaking indie movement in Kerala.
Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's fiercely progressive vision and conviction is apparent in his filmography and one can only hope that unreasonable censorship does not stop him from telling important stories.