South Indian director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Rotterdam Tiger Award-winning third feature is a technically dazzling and wilfully onerous thriller that walks an uncertain line between advocacy and exploitation. Clocking in at a brisk 85 minutes, the film follows a young couple: the titular Durga (Rajshri Deshpandey) and her boyfriend Kabeer (Kannan Nayar), on the run late at night on a rural road somewhere in Kerala, southern India. The reasons for their flight are never made clear, but, in their desperation to make it to a distant train station, they accept a ride from two men in a van blasting tracks by local thrash band Chaos. It doesn’t take long for the mood in the van to turn sinister, as the driver and his companion hint at captivity and sexual violence, and emergency vehicles stream past on the road, sirens blaring.
The threat is compounded by the fact that Durga is a Hindi-speaking north Indian, unable to communicate with the Malayalam speakers around her. As the tension escalates, Durga and Kabeer repeatedly implore their would-be captors to allow them to leave, which the men refuse to do on the basis that the roads are unsafe, claiming to regularly see dead bodies at the roadside. At one point, they bluntly tell their fellow travellers, “If someone kidnaps you, you’ll be fucked.” This establishes the narrative framework for the film: as the danger escalates, Durga and Kabeer try to find ways to escape their captors, but every opportunity to do so offers more potential dangers: a police roadblock manned by men who may not be what they seem, or more menacing motorists with unclear motivations. Each attempt at escape ultimately delivers Durga and Kabeer back into the confines of the van and its uncertain destination, which seems increasingly unlikely to be the railway station.
Sasidharan stages his unscripted film in bravura long takes, some stretching past the 10-minute mark. Often the camera will begin a scene within the van, then sinuously follow a character once the van comes to a halt, before ultimately returning to the vehicle and travelling off once again. Cinematographer Prathap Joseph’s camera manoeuvres are all the more impressive given both the tight confines of the van and the low light conditions in which the film was shot. The durational experience of the long takes effectively escalates the sense of dread and heightens anticipation of impending violence. Small gestures similarly contribute to the oppressive atmosphere: Durga’s worsening cough, Kabeer’s constantly ringing mobile phone that goes unanswered.
Sexy Durga is bookended by documentary-style sequences depicting a narratively unrelated local religious ceremony in which men pierce their torsos with hooks and hang suspended, swinging at the front of a truck. The film begins with an epigraph from the epic poem Ramayana describing the disfiguring of a demoness. Taken in tandem with the ritual imagery that periodically punctuates Sexy Durga, Sasidharan suggests that such violence is deeply ingrained within the culture. Indeed, the film’s Durga shares her name with a venerated Hindu goddess, whose decapitated head in miniature form dangles ominously from the van’s rear vision mirror.
Sasidharan has spoken of his ironic intentions with the film’s title, exposing the inherent contradictions of what he considers to be an endemic Madonna-whore complex. Similar themes were explored in Anurag Kashyap’s Psycho Raman at last year’s SFF, which treated domineering masculinity as contagion, and struggled to morally justify its unpleasant depictions of violence against its female characters. In its narrative premise, Sexy Durga cannot help but recall the long litany of horrific assaults on women throughout India, not least the 2012 bus-bound captivity, gang rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi that inspired Leslee Udwin’s recent BBC documentary India’s Daughter.
Sexy Durga arrives in Sydney hot on the heels of the thematically similar Hounds of Love, and the comparison is an illustrative one: where that film performs moral contortions, attempting to pathologise its subject matter through endless backstory, the more formally adventurous Durga remains deliberately inscrutable. Its maddening repetitions force us to inhabit its unpleasant psychological terrain, and while a satisfactory resolution never materialises, one suspects that is precisely Sasidharan’s absurdist point: the cycle of distrust and danger continues ever on.
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