One dark night in Kerala, Durga (Rajshri Deshpande) and Kabeer (Kannan Nayar) hitch a ride to the railway station. We know very little about them, but the urgency with which they want to catch a train suggests they may be a couple trying to run away. Durga only speaks Hindi, revealing that she’s a North Indian; Kabeer is a Malayalee. Their names suggest, too, that they may be an interfaith couple, Durga a Hindu, Kabeer a Muslim.
Durga and Kabeer’s story is contrasted with images of the Garudan Thookkam, or “Eagle Hanging”, a ritual performed in honour of the goddess Kali, in which participants hang – presumably allowing them to look like flying eagles — from hooks that pierce their bodies. One version of Kali’s origins is that she was born out of the anger of the goddess Durga. Kali has associations with violence and sexuality, and invoking her here serves to underscore the undercurrent of threat faced by Durga and Kabeer at the hands of the men in the van they hitch a ride in.
Durga is seen as a protective, warrior goddess, combatting evil forces and fighting for what is right and just. So it is fitting, then, that director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan uses the torment of Durga’s human namesake as a metaphor for the kind of misogyny that allows men, on the one hand, to worship female goddesses, but treat actual women very, very badly. The men in the van display the kind of casual sexism many women face on a daily basis, threats and aggression disguised as teasing and casual conversation. There is a line here, but we’re never really sure where it is, nor when the moment where sexist banter becomes outright threat lies.
I loved the contrast between the rituals and the van: the rituals have their own trappings, lights, decorations, chanting music; so does the van, though in the case of the latter, it’s more about thrash metal and trippy detailing. The van ride becomes a kind of procession for Durga and her partner Kabeer; the van’s occupants, her “worshippers”, though in this case, we understand that this is more about the destruction of the human Durga, and that no matter how many times Durga and Kabeer try to leave the van and find a safe way to the railway station, they are always going to be dragged back into this dangerous and dehumanizing situation.
Sexy Durga retains the same sense of immediacy as Sasidharan’s previous film, Ozhivudivasathe Kali (“An Off Day Game”), largely because of the unscripted, ad-lib nature of both. The downside of this free-wheeling approach to filmmaking is that it is often repetitive; the upside, of course, is that it allows us to feel as if we, too, have been dropped into the middle of these encounters, allowing us to feel more pointedly the plight of Durga and Kabeer. This journey is dark and confusing: the men in the van casually tease and taunt the couple, but are they truly evil? Or, are they, as they say, not as bad as anyone else the couple might meet on the road?
The film is, frankly, a brutal and challenging watch, and not for the faint of heart. But Sanal Kumar Sasidharan is a filmmaker who is challenging these ideas around casual sexism and the micro-aggressions that women face – in his previous film, he inserted a discussion around the idea of sexual consent – and he’s making a welcome contribution to a discussion around these issues that is slowly starting to take place in Kerala.