S Durga review: This Malayalam thriller is indulgent but packed with social commentary
The controversial S Durga is an exasperating watch, which goes both for and against the film
The provocatively titled Sexy Durga, which was finally given the title S Durga in India, the new film from Malayalam director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan was made without a script in place. On that front, as a bit of improv filmmaking this is quite an achievement, going against the grain of the rules of cinema. It’s also an exasperating watch, which works both for and against the film.
The story is as barebones as it gets – a young couple is walking on a lonely road in the middle of the night somewhere in Kerala. They have a couple of small bags in their hands – they are clearly eloping. The man who is named Kabeer (Kannan Nayar) suggests to the woman Durga (Rajshri Deshpande) that they head to the railway station to catch a train, and they decide to hitchhike. Bad move. They get into a Maruti Omni packed to the brim with a bunch of shady characters who may or may not be up to no good.
As the night progresses, we switch back and forth from the couple dealing with people who seem increasingly dangerous, to strange footage of a nearby village where the villagers perform bizarre rituals to appease the goddess Durga. The documentary-like footage is disturbing to say the least, as the people no longer seem human but feral, walking over burning coal and piercing their skin with metal to satisfy their goddess. As nothing really seems to make sense, you begin to wonder where all this is heading to, and you really won’t be faulted for being frustrated by the lack of a thorough line in the narrative.
The devil is in the details though. This is the kind of film where its impact hits you when you are back home and stop to wonder what the heck all that was about. Sasidharan manages to impart a substantial amount of social commentary, skewering religion with great delight, complete with blaring death metal music and face masks that represent the devil. F*ck God, the film says, jump on board and ride with the devil. In a world where humans have degraded themselves to a vastly dangerous and demeaned species, who only use religion to commit atrocities, you are better off siding with the princes of darkness.
With themes as esoteric as these, there was no way you were going to get a film with a straightforward narrative, so S Durga is ultimately an indulgent bit of filmmaking. With long uncut takes, showy cinematography and seemingly endless banter, this is a film meant only for fans of folks like Kim Ki Duk and Bela Tarr, also known as those with vast reserves of patience. Some of the endless takes could have found a better home on the cutting room floor, but when the takes work, they are awesome. There is a fun sequence where the camera enters the car, stays inside for ten whole minutes capturing the verbal harassment of Kabeer and Durga, fluidly exits the car and continues hovering over the characters, then enters the car again as it zooms away. There is another sequence perfectly times with the arrival of a train in the backdrop.
It is not clear why Durga is ‘sexy’ until the very end of the film, but it is the kind of film that is worth going through the taxingly indulgent jaunt.
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