Sexy Durga or S Durga? How the government’s reaction proves the very point the film makes

Director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Malayalam film Sexy Durga is a searing condemnation of a society that places every woman on a pedestal as “mata” (mother) or “devi” (goddess) as long as she stays at home and remains pliable, conformist and opinionless

Anna MM Vetticad November 29, 2017 14:01:13 IST
Sexy Durga or S Durga? How the government’s reaction proves the very point the film makes

A young woman in Kerala elopes with her boyfriend, or so we assume from their actions, though we may well be wrong. She is Hindu and he is Muslim, or so we gather from their names — Durga and Kabeer — though we may well be wrong about that too. She is a north Indian and he a southerner, or so we gather because he speaks Malayalam comfortably, she speaks only Hindi and this may be the one thing we can conclude about them with some degree of certainty from his response when asked by those they meet: “Hindi aano?” (Is she a Hindi bhaashi? / Is she a north Indian?)

Assumptions, prejudices reaffirmed by — or based on — those assumptions, and facts are all mashed into the reactions the two elicit from obnoxious passers-by and even the police as they desperately try to hitch a ride to a railway station in the dead of night on a deserted road somewhere in Kerala. A woman out on the streets in the dark with a person of the opposite sex who belongs to another community: in the average Indian mind, that is enough evidence to conclude that “something seems fishy”, as one character in the film says.

Sexy Durga or S Durga How the governments reaction proves the very point the film makes

Poster for Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s S Durga

Director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Malayalam film Sexy Durga is a searing condemnation of a society that places every woman on a pedestal as “mata” (mother) or “devi” (goddess) as long as she stays at home and remains pliable, conformist and opinionless. Durga — frozen as a statue — is worshipped in temples and her anger, her courage revered. Yet, a living breathing assertive human Durga with emotions and sexual desires, who defies patriarchal strictures in the slightest way, is damned as a questionable character unworthy of that same respect, as the film reminds us through the actions of those that Durga and Kabeer meet that night. Such a woman out on the streets beyond socially permissible hours, is routinely assumed to be dubious, promiscuous, even a prostitute, as personal experience in the real world tells us. And as is sadly evident from the Supreme Court’s reference to Stockholm Syndrome this week in the case of the real-life Hadiya who is fighting for her freedom in Kerala, any such woman aggressively lashing out at patriarchy is infantalised and assumed to be potentially manipulable.

Sexy Durga has earned accolades and awards at festivals in India and abroad. Its release date in domestic theatres is yet to be fixed, but for months now, the team’s energies have been devoted to battling Indian authorities. As the curtains came down on Tuesday (28 November 2017) on the government-organised International Film Festival of India (IFFI) 2017, a series of developments ended in Sasidharan’s film not being screened there although it had been officially selected for the programme.

The road has been long for Sexy Durga. This October the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) aka Censor Board had insisted on multiple audio cuts and a change in name to S Durga for its release in Indian theatres. Though no reason was reportedly offered by CBFC, an indication comes from the Union Information & Broadcasting Ministry’s refusal in the previous month to grant the film an exemption — as is the norm — for Mumbai’s MAMI Festival with this declaration (quoted on Sasidharan’s Facebook page): “…Ministry is of the view that, it may affect the law and order as it hurts the religious sentiments, ‘Durga’ being a principal Hindu Goddess. The applicant however, may approach the Central ‘Board of Film Certification for certification of this film in normal course instead of seeking exemption.” (sic)

The director submitted his film to the CBFC, agreed to their demands, and the film was ultimately screened at MAMI in October with its new name, S Durga. Yet this month, the Ministry arbitrarily dropped S Durga from IFFI 2017’s programme along with the Marathi film Nude without offering any explanation, although both had been selected by the IFFI jury. Since the news came just days before IFFI, Sasidharan was left with little time but he approached the Kerala High Court for relief all the same. The Court last week ordered the Ministry to screen the film at IFFI, but the festival directorate first dilly-dallied by holding a re-screening of the censored version for re-clearance by the jury as late as on the evening of Monday, 27 November, a day before the festival’s closing date. (This was a jury with three new recruits since three earlier members had resigned in protest against S Durga and Nude being barred from the festival.) The film was cleared again, reportedly with a 7:4 majority, but the Ministry did not schedule a screening. Finally, on the last day, according to reports, the CBFC revoked its earlier clearance to the film based on complaints by some jury members about the style in which the title has been written on the title card which, the Board said in a letter to the producer, “is effectively undermining and attempting to defeat the very basis of the title registration and changes”.

Such vindictiveness towards a small filmmaker with limited resources and such nonchalance towards a High Court directive should be a cause for alarm to those who believe in artistic freedom, democratic principles and basic human decency. There is another aspect of this episode worth noting here though. The BJP government and its supporters perhaps do not realise that in their reactions to Sexy Durga, they have unwittingly driven home the very points Sasidharan set out to make in his film.

Sexy Durga or S Durga How the governments reaction proves the very point the film makes

Still from Sexy Durga / S Durga

Young Durga’s travails on the streets in Sasidharan’s story are juxtaposed against a goddess-worshipping festival during which men put themselves through unimaginable torture (hanging from body piercings, running rods through their mouths and more) to prove their devotion to the deity. In an introductory scene, as a man in Sexy Durga heads off to the festival procession, he briefly harasses a female bystander to amuse himself. That fleeting shot immediately points us in the direction of what the title seeks to convey: that the woman in the tableau is adored by men who may well trivialise and abuse the women in their lives; that those who idolise Durga — or other goddesses and mother figures in major world religions, for that matter — are not necessarily, in fact are rarely, feminists.

Far from being moved, as festival audiences have been, by Sexy Durga’s hard-hitting and multi-layered messaging, the government and conservatives among the public (most of whom have not seen the film) have chosen instead to be irked by the title that they believe demeans Goddess Durga. The government is also clearly irked by the content although they have not yet said why. The reasons for the latter should be obvious to any liberal who has watched the film and is concerned about the increasing opposition to inter-faith marriages — and the normalisation of the ugly term “love jihad” — by right-wingers across India.

Sexy Durga is about the othering of communities at various levels, a discussion I will leave for the film’s review whenever it reaches theatres. This column is about the fundamentalist protests against the film. Since this government is unlikely to care about the north-south implication in the story, and since it is overtly and covertly trying to bully the Hadiyas of the real world to return to the Hindu fold and leave their Muslim husbands, it seems obvious that the I&B Ministry’s unease with Sexy Durga’s narrative is related to the Durga-Kabeer dynamic.

As for the aversion to the name Sexy Durga, it reveals much about contemporary Indian society. The objection here is to the adjective “sexy” being placed alongside the name of a Hindu goddess, as if it is a dirty word. It does not matter that “sexy” means “attractive” and “alluring” in the English language. Since the letters “s-e-x” are contained in “sexy”, it immediately attracts the sort of Victorian prudery that has come to pervade this nation from the colonial era, in sharp contrast to the sexual permissiveness that was once the hallmark of the Hindu way of life.

Today’s self-appointed guardians of Hinduism rarely speak from a position of knowledge about the religion, its mythology or related socio-cultural traditions. Sasidharan illustrated this point in a Facebook post a few days ago:

I was talking to a person, who called from north to warn me against the title of my film. I asked if he know Sankaracharya, he said no. I asked if he know Kedarnath. He said yes. I told him that Sankaracharya was the one established Kedarnath temple. He asked so what? I told him that Sankara is the one who wrote Soundarya Lahari too and asked if he know about it. He said he is not interested in all these things and repeated his question why did I put the name Sexy Durga. I told him, Sankaracharya, who is considered to be the saint who established the Hinduism as a religion which we see now, has described Goddess as Sexy in Soundarya Lahari and in Lalitha Sahsra Namam also similar verses are there. He said “you people from south are all bastards” and cut the phone.” (sic)

Anyone supporting Sexy Durga on social media has, predictably, been asked by BJP-supporting right-wing Hindu trolls why the film has not been named Sexy Mary or Sexy Ayesha. The answer should be obvious to those not seeking to make a petty point to India’s minority communities, but the obvious needs to be stated in the trying times we live in, so here it is: Sure it could have been called Sexy Mary or Sexy Ayesha, except that the line of reasoning would have been vastly diluted by the use of those names for the film in the Indian context. Mary is not just the mother of Jesus Christ, it is the commonest name among Indian Christian women. Ayesha, likewise, is not just Prophet Mohammad’s wife, it is a common name among Indian Muslims. The heroine of this film would have been as Indian if she had been an Ayesha or a Mary, but since Muslims form just over 14 per cent of India’s population as per the 2011 Census and Christians just over 2 per cent, the names Sexy Mary or Sexy Ayesha for an Indian film are likely to have conveyed the impression that they are specifically related to these communities rather than Indian society at large. Sexy Durga on the other hand — in a country where Hindus form 60-80 per cent of the population (80 if you count SCs and STs) — implies a pan-India social commentary.

Since common sense becomes scarce when bigotry comes into play, this column will pre-empt another question with an obvious answer that is likely to come up sometime soon, if it has not been asked sometime somewhere already: why Sexy Durga and not Sexy Seema / Priya / Pushpa / Pinky / Babli or some other title without obvious religious connotations? The answer, as already explained, is that the religious reference in the film’s title and the heroine’s name are crucial to Sexy Durga’s messaging because it serves to highlight the hypocrisy of patriarchal yet goddess-worshipping religionists.

Sexy Durga or S Durga How the governments reaction proves the very point the film makes

Still from Sexy Durga / S Durga

Another claim being made is that Indian filmmakers would not dare to name a film Sexy Ayesha or Sexy Mary for fear of angering India’s religious minorities. Let us examine the rationale behind that accusation. It is true that Muslim fundamentalists have given tough competition to Hindu fundamentalists in violently targeting artists and their works for decades now; in the past decade, Sikh fundamentalists have destroyed the community’s reputation as an easygoing people by jumping on to this bandwagon of violence and threats; and Christian fundamentalists — who once were almost solely known for the shameful opposition in Kerala to the staging of a play based on The Last Temptation of Christ in the 1980s — have in recent years begun to indulge in a bizarre competitive communalism in what appears to be a desperate bid to gain importance by protesting, among other things, against the film Da Vinci Code and the play Agnes of God.

That said, it is equally true that the Bloody Mary is one of the most popular cocktails available in bars across India and in Christian majority countries worldwide, and Tommy and Johnny are common names for dogs in Indian households. Though the origin of the cocktail’s name remains unconfirmed, let us rewind to the fact that Mary is Jesus’ mother and among the most venerated figures in Christianity, while Tommy and Johnny come from the names of Jesus’ apostles, Thomas and John. Since India’s Christians have not so far censored bar menus or dog names; and since India’s Muslims have not been known to hound media platforms running stories about the sexiness, sultriness and hotness of Ayesha Takia / Jhulka / any other actress and model bearing that first name, the hypothetical allegation that they would riot over a hypothetical film named Sexy Mary or Sexy Ayesha is nothing short of an inanity.

It is a measure of the present dispensation’s skewed priorities that Sexy Durga is being charged with hurting Hindu sentiments when in fact it has sparked off conversations about the position of women in Indian society among socially sensitive viewers who have actually seen it. These self-proclaimed guardians of Hinduism have, on the other hand, shown little regard for Hindu women who are denied their rights and/or become victims of sexual violence in real life. They have also displayed a limited understanding of Hinduism in their arguments against the film.

Of the many world religions practised in India, Hinduism is unique in the way its traditions have tended to project gods and goddesses as regular human-like beings, some with superhuman strengths and powers, some not, and all of them with regular human virtues, vices and eccentricities. The right-wing mindset of the BJP and the larger Sangh Parivar seems determined to suck the fun, joy, beauty and richness out of a mythology that has no qualms in telling us that Lord Krishna stole butter from his mother’s kitchen and Lord Shiva smoked ganja. What if this film was not about a girl called Durga on the streets of Kerala, but about Shiva’s wife Parvathi who, like Durga, is a manifestation of the Goddess Shakti? The puritanical Hinduism that Sangh acolytes seek to impose on the title Sexy Durga is either unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the mythological depiction of Parvathi’s sexuality and of Shiva as a virile man who was delightfully open about his sexual attraction towards his gorgeous wife. You may choose to interpret sex and sexuality — as referenced in folklore, writings and iconography — in a literal biological sense or a transcendental sense, but the point is that Hinduism is intrinsically not squeamish about either.

Overriding all this analysis though is the fact that members of the public supporting the government’s stance on Sexy Durga are doing so without having seen the film.

In their discomfort over Sexy Durga’s name and its content, the I&B Ministry and Censor Board have displayed the same patriarchal attitudes that the film seeks to underline: the notion that Durga is worthy of being deemed sacred only as long as her anger and assertiveness are a subject of myth while in the present she remains within the boundaries set for her by society, the conviction that a Durga who ventures out into the real world deserves the indignities and assault that come her way because — as they say in misogynist parlance — “she  asked for it”.

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