If director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan had his way, he would have been a film student at FTII. Instead he became a lawyer. But little did he know that he would end up at exactly the place he was running from – the courts. While his third feature, originally named Sexy Durga, was winning awards abroad, the authorities here at home had other plans. The film had a tumultuous journey that involved a change of title, 21 audio mutes, being dropped from festivals and more.
But Sasidharan is a fighter. When the film was not accepted in the competition section at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), he withdrew it and started his own parallel indie film festival. This was done "to protest the IFFK's ignorance towards the growing indie film movement in India." Tickets to the 4-day long Kazhcha Indie Film Fest were priced at a paltry sum of 100 rupees.
S Durga, Sasidharan's third feature, follows an eloping couple, Kabir and Durga as they get picked up by a group of shady men. The film juxtaposes these events with a celebration of Garudan Thookkam in honor of the goddess Durga at a village temple. It asks the pertinent question – we worship female goddesses but why doesn't our piety show in the way we treat women?
In a telephonic interview with Film Companion, Sasidharan talks about going from practising lawyer to film director, why he will always make political films and how the rough journey he's had with the film will only make him stronger:
There was chatter about the film's name long before the IFFI controversy. Did you always know things would go this way or were even you taken by surprise?
People were always saying it would happen and the film won't release and all. But I never believed that our country is so pathetic. I believed they would start the problems but I thought I could approach the courts and the government and screen the film. That was my confidence in my country and the system.
But after these incidents, I'm in a very disappointed state because everyone – the ministry, the film festival managers – is falling prey to this kind of hue and cry where "we are affected". There is no democracy. It is like a mobocracy. If the mob is saying this should be done, it will be done. I don't want to go back to courts. I escaped from that to do filmmaking and after making a film, I'm forced to go back.
In an interview with The Hindu in 2016 you said, "A creative filmmaker must swim against the current. That is where the unexplored places are. It is up to him to find and expose those Achilles heels in our society." What are the different Achilles heels you see in society?
For me, I consider my society as part of my life. Everything that happens in society affects me and everything affecting me will affect society. It's a reciprocal process. I'm not making films to tell stories which attract people. I don't want to make simple, lovable stories.
I'm watching myself through a mirror. I'm not accusing anybody. I'm seeing myself through the film. I myself am the culprit and I myself am the accuser. You can't assume a position saying, 'I'm different and the society is wrong.' I'm a part of my films. My silent crimes, nobody sees them. But I do.
With your first film Oraalppokkam, you came up with a unique way of exhibition in which you travelled with screening equipment in a cab and showed your film in places like societies, arts clubs and libraries. Where did this idea for 'cinema vandi' (cinema cab) or 'people's distribution of cinema' come from?
Oraalppokkam was a different film and was made in a different way. There was no single producer and there was no hero. I couldn't market that film through the system. I wanted to screen the film in theatres. Lots of people were asking me why I didn't release it on YouTube. But I see cinema as a mass medium. When you screen a film to a crowd, then the emotion building is totally different than when you screen it to a single individual. I wanted to experience that but it was very difficult to get theatres.
We had heard some stories about John Abraham (Malayali director) and the Odessa Collective. Now it's easier – we can have a handy projector and a vehicle. You have a lot of roads so you can go to villages and screen it there. It was very successful. We did 100 screenings and in a lot of places it was crowded. You need to understand that this was a "philosophical artistic film" and not dance and musical kind. I was totally amazed by the response.
How did you manage to get a release for S Durga even though exhibitors initially were hesitant? And what sort of impact do you think this way of distribution could have?
Though the film was noticed very much because of the awards and controversies, no individual distributor was ready to take up the film. People were scared and skeptical. So we needed to explore the theatrical system in a different way. Theatres are not the enemy, they're actually friendly to all kinds of filmmakers. I talked to theatres and they said, "If you get people, we will screen it."
I posted that if 100 can come together, we can arrange a screening in that locality. Within 24 hours, we got around 15-20 groups formed in several places. It was a surprise to me to learn that there were so many people wanting to watch the film. In a week, we made the list to 48.
Each locality had its own group. And this group became the "distributor" in their locality. Whatever revenue we get, they get 10%. That was the idea. There are a lot of films in Kerala in Malayalam – independent films without the support of stars and all. If we can continue this, we can release the films. This can gradually increase the sensibilities of the local audience also. They have no chance to watch these parallel, independent or art films. They have only seen the superhero films and dramas. Little by little, we will be able to change the mentality and the viewing culture of the people.
How does this whole ordeal change things going forward? Will you be self-censoring to avoid controversy?
Every resistance can make you more powerful. Hurdles make you jump higher. It's a necessity. You feel that you're significant and so is your art. That's why you're getting resistance. Make it more significant! That is my idea. There will be no self-censoring. If your film is not significant, then people will be entertained, applaud it and go. If your film is significant, it will agitate people, irk people and some may not like it. They will start resisting your art.
According to The State of Artistic Freedom study, 20% of all film censorship cases in 2017 came from India. How, according to you, can we move forward and find solutions to this issue?
I have a feeling we're working in a wrong way. If you're in a democracy, you need exchange. You need to change the people. We always try to change authority. But where do the authorities come from? From the people. You need to change the mindset of people. Now they think there must be censorship and art must not question religion or power. If this is the people's idea, then the authority can't dissent. They need people's support so they give people what they want.