Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Sexy Durga generates a steady thrum of dread that builds to cringe-inducing levels as it follows a couple, Durga (Rajshri Deshpande) and Kabeer (Kannan Nayar), over the course of a night in the southern Indian state of Kerali. Though their body language and occasional urgent exchanges speak to the tender intimacy between the two, their minimal dialogue tells us almost nothing about them except that she’s a Hindi-speaking northern Indian, he’s from Kerali, and they’re trying to hitch a ride to a railroad station so they can catch a train north. This pointed lack of detail makes the story of one couple’s journey gone horribly awry feel universal, an allegory about the violent misogyny that plagues India.
The film opens on title cards that tell a story from the Ramayana about the goddess Durga being punished for exhibiting strong emotions. That story is followed by footage of an actual Garudan Thookkam ceremony in honor of the goddess Durga, also filmed in Kerali, in which men enter into trance-like states and undergo tortuous-looking rituals like walking on red-hot coals or hanging for hours by heavy iron hooks inserted into their skin. Sasidharan sets up his point about the irony of a culture that worships powerful goddesses while treating actual women like livestock by weaving in and out of clumps of men who are busy directing or participating in the ceremonies, the wooden statue of the goddess the only female figure in their midst, while women watch warily from the sidelines, clumped together with their children.
The human Durga and her suitor are doomed from the moment they accept a ride, getting into a white van with two men who turn out to be crooks on their way to deliver a load of weapons to a couple of confederates deep in the countryside. Building suspense without breaking with the tone of unvarnished realism he established in the footage depicting the Garudan Thookkam ceremony, Sasidharan illuminates the aggression and sense of entitlement that leads to rape and shows how an assault often starts with bullying or insinuating conversation and nonsexual forms of physical encroachment. Read the rest in Slant Magazine