Two strangers attempt to traverse the dangerous terrain of India’s Kerala region

Sexy Durga

Source: Tokyo International Film Festival

Sexy Durga

Dir/scr. Sanal Kumar Sasidharan. India. 2017. 85 mins.

There’s a fine line between pleasure and pain in Sexy Durga. Some men prove their religious passion through pierced flesh, some enforce their general passion by preying upon others, but the impulses driving their behaviour remain the same. That’s the bleak message at the core of this year’s Rotterdam Tiger Award winner, one that the largely improvised Indian feature espouses forcefully and repetitively.

Reinforcing the futility of human existence by saddling its protagonists with a series of choices between equally terrible options proves effective

The probing juxtapositions keep on coming, particularly regarding the country’s treatment of women; a train of thought its introductory use of the epic Ramayana poem underscores. That the film’s title refers to both a revered goddess and a victimised hitchhiker couldn’t be more telling; here, females are deities to be revered in the mind and in the abstract, but mere objects to be dominated and used in everyday reality.

As director/editor Sanal Kumar Sasidharan spends his third film demonstrating humanity’s inherent brutality — hurting ourselves in the name of devotion, hurting others in the name of desire — there’s little room for subtlety. Yet, while the Six Feet High and An Off-Day Game filmmaker makes his points plain with the heaviest of hands, he does so with a deft feel for cultivating tension; especially between the manner in which audiences hope the feature’s characters will act and the way they know they inevitably will. Indeed, it’s the movie’s potent air of perceptive, palpable unease that has helped it successfully work the festival circuit throughout 2017, with Tokyo Sexy Durga’s latest global stopover.

Cloaked in the sinister darkness of India’s southern Kerala region at night, the bulk of the film sticks with Durga (Rajshri Deshpande, convincing) and Kabeer’s (Kannan Nayar, also making a mark) as they endeavour to travel to the closest railway station. She’s a Hindi-speaking northerner, he’s a Malayalam-speaking Muslim from around those parts and, though nothing else about their background is explained, they’re clearly heading to their Madras destination to escape unpleasantness.

When two men in a van (Sujeesh K. S., Arun Sol) stop to offer them a ride, later joined by two more (Vedh, Bilas Nair), the pair’s need for a lift eclipses their wariness at the death metal-blaring vehicle and leering, intimidating inhabitants. Despite constant warnings that they’ll be kidnapped or worse if they try to fend for themselves, it doesn’t take long for Durga to change her mind about accepting their help; not that the desperate duo have any other viable alternatives.

Reinforcing the futility of human existence by saddling its protagonists with a series of choices between equally terrible options proves effective; whether they stay in the vehicle or take to the road once more, an uncertain fate looms large. Sasidharan overplays his hand by cycling through this scenario over and over, as Durga and Kaneer leave, cross paths with shady police and menacing motorcyclists, and keep returning to the van; however the impact of seeing them repeatedly fear for their safety but realise that worse could await elsewhere can’t be underestimated. His penchant for long takes, letting each episode run its recurrent course as cinematographer Prathap Joseph follows the characters inside the car, outside and back, assists immensely.

Decidedly flouting its moniker from start to finish, Sexy Durga bookends the central, fictional narrative with documentary scenes of extreme worship dedicated to Durga’s namesake, aka a Garudan Thookkam ceremony. Inessential to the plot but crucial to the feature’s grim treatise, they’re both fascinating and far from easy to watch, providing stark, unflinching examples of posturing, self-imposed cruelty. It’s a short, purposeful leap between the bright yet searing feat of walking on hot coals and the peril of the lit-up van.

Production company: NIV Art Movies

International sales: NIV Art Movies,

Producers: Aruna Mathew, Shaji Mathew

Cinematographer: Prathap Joseph

Editor: Sanal Kumar Sasidharan

Production designer: Murukan A

Composer: Basil CJ

Main cast: Rajshri Deshpande, Vishnu Vedh, Sujeesh K. S., Kannan Nair, Bilas Nair, Arun Sol