Bengaluru: Four months after losing their fight against government censors and fed up with the alleged stalling tactics of state-run cinemas in their home state, the makers of the Malayalam film Sexy Durga —now prudently renamed S Durga—have hit upon a novel way to exhibit the film: crowdsourced screenings.

Director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan said cinemas in Kerala are simply stalling his controversial movie, so he is turning the tables on the exhibitors and distributors on who gets to decide where a movie will be shown. Movie lovers will collect across the state known for its world beating art house films on 23 March and, if all goes to plan, fill up cinemas and sit back for a show.

S Durga was last year’s most controversial movie after Padmaavat, with the Censor Board demanding several cuts and a name change. Later, the Union government took it off the International Film Festival of India lineup, prompting protests, the resignation of festival jury members and a lengthy legal battle. By the time Sasidharan won it, the festival was over.

But the battle to screen was by no means over.

“I approached the theatres in Kerala; they said the screens are packed and could not give a release date until May. We cannot wait until then, which leaves us with no other option but to release it in some other way," the filmmaker said over the phone.

The movie is about a woman, Durga, who is trying to elope with her boyfriend Kabir. They are victimized by those who offer them a lift during an overnight road trip. The movie portrays the victimization of the woman and contrasts it with a society where a Hindu goddess by the same name is worshipped in huge public festivals.

A wide section of critics praised the film for its artistic merits, and it won the prestigious Hivos Tiger Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. But some took offence at the portrayal of Hinduism.

Sasidharan, however, is determined to show his movie in Kerala. The plan is simple: He has urged fans, movie buffs and film societies in Kerala to organize crowds of at least 100 people who want to watch the movie in their respective locations. Wherever such audiences collect, he will use an advance payment from the organizer to rent out a cinema. The organizers, in turn, will be paid 10% of ticket sales. In short, fans will be booking their own screenings and Sasidharan won’t have to worry about the rent to be paid to the cinema owners.

“Right now, the audience has no say in deciding the release of a movie. We want to change it and create numerous local distributor’s associations who are there for the love of good cinema," said Sasidharan, in Malayalam.

The development puts the spotlight on the struggles a conservative society throws up before an Indian art house movie director, even in a place like Kerala that is known for its high literacy, high incomes and expanded individual choice. It also underlines the thriving fight back against the system by such directors, at least in Kerala.

“Lack of audience is not a problem, but the way the market operates is," said Don Palathara, an alumnus of International Film School, Sydney, and director of Netflix-streaming 2016 Malayalam movie Shavam, a dark-comedy set around a funeral in a house.

Shavam, shot in black-and-white partly owing to lack of funds, won the Best Foreign Film Award at the Barni International Festival in Moscow in 2016, among other awards. But it was not released in Kerala. So, Palathara screened his movie by hiring a van and touring villages across Kerala, taking a leaf out of the playbook of late independent directors such as John Abraham.

Before S Durga, Sasidharan’s first two films, Oralpokkam and Ozhivu Divasathe Kali, were also screened using a touring van, popularly known as Cinema Vandi (cinema vehicle). Ozhivu Divasathe Kali, however, was screened in public-run theatres—albeit for only a week.

“Invariably, they (cinema owners) only accept what they are used to seeing so far. Earlier, filmmakers such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan tried to jump this barrier by creating film societies that appreciated art-house movies," said Palathara. “When the market is not playing by our rules, we have to create our own market."

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