“Have we hurt you? Have we disrespected you?”
These are questions repeatedly and tenaciously posed by four men surrounding a young couple (played by Rajshri Deshpande and Kannan Nayar) inside a car. The couple, desperately trying to make their way to the nearest railway station in the middle of the night, take a lift in a car blaring metal songs. A shot of a car on a sequestered highway in the middle of the night, can instantly establish a number of things. And not a single of them is pleasant. The director knows that and uses that knowledge to ask difficult questions.
In a tense scene, that deliberately mirrors Indian cinema’s representation of police interrogation, the couple are engaged in a conversation with men in the car. It features a constantly-ringing mobile and a light (in the car) that gets turned off and on. The couple is posed with ‘innocent questions’ bordering on accusations and sneaky suggestions. As the laughter of these men keeps getting more high-pitched, you can almost smell their breath stinking of ‘local brew rum’. Soon, the ‘polite inquiries’ become more invasive, more ribald. By now, the audience feels just as cornered as the couple.
One of the reasons why Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s S Durga will be hailed as a potent social commentary is because of the way it tricks you into questioning the film’s ‘contrivances’. ‘Why couldn’t they just get an Uber?’ or ‘why would they get into an Omni full of shady men?’ (films and Omnis have an evil past)
It’s only after you came out of the theatre, spend some time discussing the film with your friends, hear yourself posing these questions that you realise that the focus has shifted to these innocuous details, from the young couple’s continuous harassment. The desire to reason with ‘filmy logic’ had made me say something that sounded awfully similar to a rape apologist – ‘why did the girl get into the car? She should have stayed away from men!’. The contrivance (in my opinion) is by design, and it’s clinically placed to elicit a reaction out of you – were the couple ‘wrong’ in hitching a ride?
The film begins with a long and deliberately unsettling scene featuring Kali devotees hanging by hooks pierced into their back. Sasidharan inter-cuts that with the people in the car, who leer at the ‘human’ Durga. Here lies the director’s central observation of how society (and men) tend to deify women or reduce them to an object of pleasure.
In a scene where the couple and their ‘helpers’ run into the local law enforcement – the officials are seen letting off a serial offender of drunk-driving, who can’t even stand straight while talking to them. They also fail to notice weapons in a car’s trunk. But when they see a woman in a car with men in the middle of the night, they feel the need to ‘investigate the matter’. All men raise their eyebrows when they learn the boy’s name is ‘Kabeer’ and the girl’s name is ‘Durga’.
The much-debated film was given a stink-eye by the I&B Ministry at last year’s IFFI, for attaching a slang to the name of a Hindu Goddess in its title. Much like his earlier film (the brilliant Off Day Game, available on Netflix), S Durga is less of a ‘film’ and more of a germ of an idea allowed to take its natural course. The director credits himself with the ‘concept’ and there’s no mention of a screenplay or dialogues. The lines easily roll off the tongue, and seem like the product of some spontaneity from the actors. Prathap Joseph’s camera fluidly moves around from over-the-shoulder to floating outside the car, tracking the man away and then back to the car.
As the couple try to escape an unfortunate fate over the night, they keep getting stared at and policed by various groups of strangers. In a country, where about a fifth of the population (approximately 240 million people) lives below poverty line, where the unemployment is nearly 7% – the society’s most pressing issue seems to be to tell two consenting adults, if they can be in a relationship.