LIFF Special Sexy Durga Q&A: Inside the mind of Sanal Kumar Sasidharan

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The last night of the London Indian Film Festival saw the English premiere of Sexy Durga, a tense film concerned with the violence against women. Directed by Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, the movie is not for the faint hearted. So how do you go about making such a picture? A question and answer session after the film let the director share his vision and movie-making process. BollySpice was there to listen and learn.

Sexy Durga was improvised, very improvised. It took about twenty nights and features friends of the director in the acting roles. On the surface of it, it might sound like creative anarchy. There was a no story, no script. Sasidharan wanted to make something that he’d never seen before. His goal was to try to capture the feelings and emotions of the situation. He explained how he viewed people’s lives as being full of moments like that, unscripted but still spell-binding.

The movie concentrates on the potential violence that might happen to a couple who risk hitchhiking late at night in a wild part of Kerala. In particular, the potential for harm to come to the female half of the couple. A seemingly fortuitous ride in a van becomes unsettling, then terrifying. The director explained that this was his response to the stories of gang rape in India. In particular there was an event in 2012 but he was at pains to explain how it wasn’t just this single story, because there is this kind of thing happening all over and all the time.

Speaking about the film-making process, he explains that the improvisation is important. A script, he said, limits the freedom of the artist, the cameraman. He finds that working without a manuscript means that he doesn’t have to spend lots of time explaining why something has changed if he makes alterations somewhere down the line.

How about the actors? Don’t they find this frustrating? Certainly, as an audience, there are times where your brain is craving back-story, motivations, history. Traditional story-telling relies on such things, often to the point of over-exposition. Sasidharan’s view is that is limiting. When he was giving his actors advice he would say “be free, don’t act”. He resisted giving them character backgrounds, even when asked point-blank for them. He wanted them to be in the moment. “If they know the history then they’ll pretend,” he explained.

The filming involved capturing scenes multiple times, with the instruction “say something different” for each take. But with such a freeform method how could he be sure that his message about violence against women would shine through. “It’s a patriarchal society which guarantees it,” he revealed.

Sexy Durga includes footage from a religious festival which on the surface might appear incongruous, but the director explained how these were to show that the misogyny that women often face is endemic of our religion, our culture. There are scenes in the movie where believers hang themselves from a truck from piercings. “I believe that should be private. In public, it’s just killing emotion and causing an emotionless society,” he explained.

The film also uses heavy metal music. Sasidharan tells of how he wanted something that was different to temple music but kind of the same too. He said that he’d run into people who felt that heavy metal was Satanic. Incredulous of that he said, “people are crazy”.

Finally, he was asked about how the film was going to fare in India. He explained how the Indian festivals have tried to stop the film. When making the film, he doesn’t worry about how it’s going to be distributed. His concentration is all on making it. Eventually though, he does want the movie to be seen and Indian film festivals have blocked it. Sometimes he’s been offered the compromise of letting the film through as long as he changes the name, but he can’t see how that makes sense. “If I change my name, am I different?”

Luckily Sexy Durga won the Tiger prize at the International Film Festival Rotterdam which Sasidharan sees as “big” and hopefully this can help fuel further releases across the world in the future. Here’s hoping audiences in India get the chance they deserve to see the film.

Here are some pictures from the Q&A

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