The setting for the film Sexy Durga, now S Durga, is a night somewhere on an unlit highway in Kerala. The only source of light for the duration of the film is from the headlights of trucks and vehicles whooshing by. The light reveals little. A runaway couple hitch a ride to a railway station. The name of the woman, a North Indian, is Durga, and the man is Kabir. For the Malayali men, Durga has to brave that night, she is “sexy" in the way every woman on a dimly lit Indian highway is sexy for predators—she is prey. Horror and suspense unravels inside the car with Durga and Kabir, but there is respite, of sorts, as director Sanal Sasidharan cuts the claustrophobic car scenes with busy, bursting visuals of religious rituals. Men in mundus pierce themselves with knives and spears in a performative trance—a prayer to goddess Durga.
The drums in the background, and the leaping ritual fire, all add to the spectacularly saffron violence.
Sasidharan conveys violent masculinity—-both ritualistic and mundane—with little directness. Shot in available light and without obvious attention to form, S Durga is in the best tradition of “ordeal cinema"—a term critic Peter Bradshaw once used to describe the Romanian New Wave of the early 2000s. An “ordeal film" is a horrific social-realist event unfolding as if in real time and space, making it brutally engaging for the viewer. Sasidharan’s film is all of those things.
S Durga is suspenseful without being stylishly edited. And Sasidharan is just one of many new directors working in Kerala who make Malayalam cinema today; robust and unpinned by formulae or genre. Not surprisingly, many Malayalam movies have faced hurdles with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC): among others, Chaayam Poosiya Veedu (2015) by Satish and Santosh Babusenan for nude scenes; Pithaavinum Puthranum (2013) by Deepesh for hurting religious sentiments; Kathakali (2016) by Oscar Saijo for a nude scene; and most famously, Papilio Buddha (2013) about landless Dalits, by Jayan Cherian, for degrading national icons such as Mahatma Gandhi, E.M.S. Namboodirippaadu and Ayyankali.
By the time I got to watch Sexy Durga—that’s the title with which the film travelled to various international film festivals before Sasidharan had to change it to S Durga—it was already in trouble. After being selected by the jury of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), Goa, it was dropped from the Indian Panorama section because the information and broadcasting (I&B) ministry expected it to rouse offence.
Sasidhran moved the Kerala high court, which, in a triumphantly milestone order, directed IFFI to screen the film. The I&B ministry had believed the name “Durga" and the word “Sexy" together in a title would “hurt religious sentiments". They also thought that Sasidharan had submitted an “uncensored" version of the film to the jury. This wasn’t a valid ground because a film need not have CBFC’s certificate to qualify for screening at a film festival; in fact, many films that film festival curators select are not the final edited versions.
Justice K. Vinod Chandran overruled both these objections because the film had got a censor certificate at the Thiruvananthapuram office of the CBFC. He noted that the CBFC-certified version of the film was entitled to be screened at the festival, and there was nothing objectionable about it. After the court’s verdict, the filmmaker met the director of IFFI with the CBFC-certified cut of the film, but he was not assured of a screening. Finally, despite protests by the filmmaker outside the IFFI venue, the film was not screened. The rejection was based on a last-minute letter from the CBFC to the IFFI director, stating a minor technicality related to the new title. It said Sasidharan changed the title from Sexy Durga to S Durga and then S### Durga, which was contentious and that the Indian Panorama jury which watched the film complained about the change.
In a social media post, Sasidharan wrote, “The jury chairman is saying that, they will submit the decision to the Ministry and Ministry will inform the court and as per the court decision they will decide. This seems to be a total mockery of the democracy. This is only to give a message to the public at large that the government is the supreme now. This is frightening. If no one is responding, the silence will be taken as approval."
The possibility of Sasidharan’s film being screened in India after the IFFI debacle is remote. Even with monetary muscle, a big Bollywood banner and reigning stars Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati no longer has a release date. Some states have even officially spoken about banning it. All because the politically influential Hindu Rajput group Karni Sena believes it belittles and distorts facts about Rajput history. They demand that certain “objectionable scenes" be deleted from the film.
Both S Durga and Padmavati, different from each other in scale, language and aesthetic, enter the annals of censored Indian films. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of them. By censored films, I mean films that have been denied a CBFC certificate, films in which numerous scenes have had to be cut, filmmakers who have been sued for offence, or films that have offended influential political parties or individuals so much that outright bans are called for.
But what does the mere act of censorship do the work itself? What happens to a creative work when it becomes scandalous to even a few?
The most tragic outcome of censorship is that an artistic work does not get seen or watched or read. But equally tragic is the way a work of art changes because of censorship. We the audience, soaked in news and outrage, register the “controversial" interpretations about it and then look for the “scandal" while watching it, consciously or unconsciously. The film becomes something more or other than what their creator originally meant it to be.
Often the offshoot of such interpretations or attacks is publicity, which can work in the favour of the creators. But something unmistakably changes in the way we imagine the work itself, which then transforms our expectations of it. “Censored" films become imbued with meanings other than those the filmmaker or writer bestowed them with. They become social constructs, and pivots of social debate.
Often, censored films have distinct points of view and are vehicles of the filmmaker’s world view or politics. But when embroiled in a struggle to be released, that world view suddenly changes into something gimmicky. In The Scandal of Pleasure: Art in an Age of Fundamentalism, a brilliantly researched and incisive critique of cultural fundamentalism and perceptions of obscenity in America, critic Wendy Steiner writes, “Artistic meaning, like all meaning, is a matter of interpretation. What the prosecution did not realize is that we react to interpretation; we judge interpretations; there is no such thing as a work that speaks for itself. Obscenity is thus always in the eye of the beholder, and what the beholder sees is subject to influence."
What else is Shekhar Kapoor’s Bandit Queen in popular perception except the rape of Phoolan Devi?
If you get to watch Padmavati, will you be looking for the bits in which the hyper-masculine Mughal king Alauddin Khilji romances the over-ornate Rajput queen; in other words? Will you be looking for the substance of the “scandal" that the film was embroiled in? Most probably, yes. The film generates scandal. And then the scandal regenerates the film.
While watching S Durga, I did look for the “sexiness" the I&B Ministry is uncomfortable with. Did I find it? Sasidharan’s film language does not hammer it in because he is more interested in irony. His film is provocative but not gimmicky. There is nothing here that would offend even the most conservative viewer.
But indelibly tainted by scandal, can this ever again be the same film that the director made?
Make no mistake, these are some of the worst of times for filmmakers in India. Politically powerful groups aligned with the central government are actively ensuring that violent threats and abuses prevail, and the media wastes little time in replicating and multiplying these threats. Sasidharan’s film was not screened despite a court order. Bhansali has been physically attacked and terrorized while shooting Padmavati, and there are fresh threats to him and Padukone.
The most frightening part about this ugly war on culture is that it does not have opponents that are forceful enough. In 2017, censorship in India is utterly and frighteningly banal.
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