Director: Sanal Kumar Sasidharan
Cast: Rajshri Deshpande, Kannan Nayar
It's the middle of the night. A Hindi-speaking woman, clutching a bag, waits for a man. She looks at her phone, her face anxious. The man arrives on a bike. The driver, a friend, tells him, "Don't waste time. Please leave." He drives away, and the man and woman begin to flag down vehicles for a lift. Couldn't the friend have hung around for a while and helped? Did no one in their circle own a car, or couldn't they have rented one? And what about these two? Are they lovers, eloping? Are they friends? Is he helping her flee from, say, an abusive relationship? What are the circumstances that prevented them from leaving earlier, in daylight? If they are headed to the railway station, why don't they seem to know the train timings? Was taking a bus not an option? At what point will we get some background that sets up what S Durga is about?
But then, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan doesn't tell stories with characters and situations so much as set up archetypal, almost primal, scenarios. (Had this been a regular, story-driven narrative, it might have reminded us of the second half of Sameer Thahir's Kali.) And these scenarios — at least to me — are reminiscent of the aversion-therapy sequence from Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. I'm talking about the stretch where the rogue-protagonist's eyes are pried open by surgical clamps, so he cannot blink, and he is shown a series of violent images so he can be "cured." As Durga and Kabeer hitch a ride in a van, S Durga throws us into the middle of the night and forces us to watch, eyes wide open, the violence around us. The man and woman endure one traumatic experience after another. Other than the helpful friend with the bike, there are no good people around — and then, these people start playing games.
In S Durga, the games are metaphorical, about the way we "toy" with others
Sasidharan likes games. In his previous film, Ozhivudivasathe Kali, the game-playing was literal. The characters picked a small piece of paper that told them the part they had to play: cop, robber, king or minister. The "cop" had to guess who the "robber" was, and so on. In S Durga, the games are metaphorical, about the way we "toy" with others. But in both films, these games start out as "fun" (though not for everyone), and end up revealing the ugliness inside the players, who are but a microcosm of a patriarchal society. These are, essentially, power games, with the strong preying on the weak. The strength comes from privilege (caste, class, gender, religious majoritarianism). The weakness rises from these very factors, but from the other end of the spectrum.
And what about the players' names? In Ozhivudivasathe Kali, the "judge" was Dharman, the servile man was Dasan. So, along those lines, the names of the protagonists of S Durga appear to be significant: Durga (Rajshri Deshpande) and Kabeer (Kannan Nayar). She's Hindu. He's Muslim. We know this not just because of his name — which is that of a Muslim saint-poet associated with the Bhakti movement (and hence, not exclusively indicative of either religion), but because of his furtiveness when he's asked his name. "Kabeer… um, Kannan." His gender makes him "stronger" than Durga, but his religion renders him weaker. The oppositions aren't simple. It's not just the characters that are playing games with each other. It's also that the director is playing games with his audience.
With this couple, is Sasidharan alluding to love jihad? Maybe. Maybe not. Or consider the bookends of the narrative, a documentary-like section that depicts the Garudan Thookkam (Eagle Hanging) ceremony, where men pierce themselves and walk over coals in an apparent celebration of the goddess Durga. Is this an ironic counterpoint to the way other men treat the human Durga? Or is this also an extension of male privilege, about how they have pushed women devotees to the sidelines and have converted the worship of a goddess into a macho pissing contest? (I can take more pain than you, man!) And what about the Ramayana quote that opens the film, from the episode about Lakshmana chopping off Surpanakha's ears, nose and breasts? Are we meant to keep in mind that Surpanakha was a demoness? Or that she was, still, a woman, punished because she fell for a married man?
This obliqueness is fascinating. Despite the fine filmmaking, I was somewhat frustrated by Ozhivudivasathe Kali, because the characters were too obviously representative of the Big Points being made. S Durga is more diffuse. You can make a strong case that it's largely about misogyny, about how unsafe this country has become for women. (Rajshri Deshpande makes Durga convincingly tired and scared.) But note how powerless Kabeer is, too. Kannan Nayar even looks like a Kabeer, a man who's kind and well-meaning but not very good at standing up to bullies — in short, he is like many of us. In the film's most grimly funny moment, he steals a sickle for their protection. You just can't imagine him wielding it should the need arise.
The sound design is chilling. A train passing by seems like an earthquake
You can also make the case that this is an urban horror story, where the harassment comes in many forms. It's in the way a man in the front seat of the van switches on the light and interrogates Durga, invading her personal space both physically and emotionally. It's in the way the "other" — Durga's North Indian-ness; Kabir's Muslim-ness — is mocked. It's in the way these harassers are themselves harassed by the police, who are higher up in the power food chain. (For a while, the van's driver himself becomes the "other," owing to his fair skin and copper highlights in his hair. The cop comments that he looks like he was born to a white man.) The script was improvised on the spot, so some of these scenes do go on, but the unrelenting mood holds it all together.
The sound design is chilling. A train passing by seems like an earthquake. The heavy-metal music (by Basil CJ) is its own kind of assault. In cinematographer Prathap Joseph's hands, the claustrophobia of the van practically becomes a supporting character. His camera dances around the van in long takes, and also provides an answer to why the couple continues to stay in the van. At one point, the camera, after observing the people inside through the windshield, rises and peers at the road behind, which looks like a dark stretch of infinity. Who knows what lurks there? In a road movie, typically, the location plays a part. We sense the linear progression and say, okay, someone was here, and now he's reached here. But S Durga goes around in circles. The repetitiveness in the narrative — Durga and Kabeer keep getting off the van, find the outside is worse, and get back in; rinse, repeat — suggests the cyclic nature of the violence we keep enabling. Even the cut that transitions the narrative from the Garudan Thookkam celebrations to the Durga/Kabeer portion — the screen goes silent; a car whizzes past, acting like a wipe — feels like an act of violence.
There are parts that feel redundant — like the statuette of the goddess Durga on the dashboard of the van, or the head of the doll (its body appears to have been ripped off) dangling below the rear-view mirror. The demon masks that the men in the van wear feel like an overdone Expressionistic touch in a film that is already conveying its horrors with a sense of reality. But the most chilling moment, for me, was when Durga and Kabeer get out of the van and have a small argument. She says the men were ogling her. His response is shocking. "But what if we don't get another lift?" That this gentle, considerate man is evaluating the practicality of things over Durga's evident discomfort shows how it's not always the "bad guys" who end up endangering women. The good guys seem to be playing their part too. The rosy signs of dawn in the sky seem like the blackest joke of all.