Rotterdam Film Review: ‘Sexy Durga’

A clandestine hitchhiking couple on a rural road in India are sadistically toyed with by two men who give them a ride in Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s unscripted, deeply unpleasant third feature “Sexy Durga.” Working a “Kinatay” vibe that subjects both characters and the audience to an extended nightmare, this murky descent into unrelieved dread is meant to call attention to the dehumanizing way women are often treated. While it’s true the film foregrounds the unrelenting misogynistic threat of physical abuse, it can also be argued that Sasidharan indulges in torture porn to the benefit of no one, least of all women’s rights. Designed as an impressionistic mood piece combining nonfiction bookends with a minimalist fictional narrative, this uber-art-house slog will see scattered fest play, but little else.

The title is a teasing misnomer: Durga is one of the major goddesses in the Hindu pantheon, but it’s her sometime association with Kali, best known outside India as the goddess of destruction, that creates resonance. Since the main female character is also named Durga (Rajshri Deshpande), the idea is to highlight the stark division between Durga as worshipped goddess and Durga as degraded woman. Theoretically it might have seemed like a clever idea, and one can imagine a gallery installation (with a long artist’s statement) making it work, but instead Sasidharan (“An Off-Day Game”) cruelly torments the viewer with the characters’ fears, offering no intellectual justification for the inflicted distress apart from the title itself.

Although the opening images are some of the most difficult to sit through, they’re also the most classically cinematic. The south-Indian ceremony known as Garudan Thookkam renders homage to Kali and involves men in a trance state whose backs are pierced with large hooks and then dangled from grills attached to trucks and driven around the temple. Like the Native American Sun Dance, it appears to outsiders as an appalling, self-imposed form of macho brutality, and Sasidharan doesn’t shy away from gut-wrenching scenes of flesh being punctured and then inhumanly stretched. Remarkably – and this testifies to the undeniable talent of both the director and his cinematographer Prathap Joseph – the movie doesn’t sensationalize the event, and while it’s horrific to watch, there’s nothing lurid about the way it’s captured.

Following these disorienting images, the film switches to the main story: Kabeer (Vishnu Vedh) and Durga rendezvous late at night on the side of a poorly trafficked road. It’s clear they’re escaping from someone, but no background is ever offered; all we learn is that she’s a Hindi-speaker from the north, and he’s a Malayalam-speaking Muslim. They’re headed to the train station, and are picked up by two men (Sujeesh K. S., Arun Sol) in a minivan. The duo project a palpable sinister air, but Durga and Kabeer need to get to the station, so they accept the lift. For the remainder of the film, shot with little lighting, the two men toy with their prey, maintaining an oppressive atmosphere of barely repressed violence that seems to be leading inexorably toward rape.

Each time the panicking lovers succeed in exiting the van, they maddeningly get back inside again when they can’t find any other means of transportation. Warned of the dangers of staying outside at night in this remote locale, they choose almost certain violence in the minivan over the possibility of salvation from other quarters; by the time the tormentors (claiming to be good Samaritans) don masks and a clown nose, the grotesque farce has irredeemably lurched into unforgivable sadism.

Some may argue that the film’s ability to elicit such an appalled response is a sign of its success, but success at what? Illustrating man’s inhumanity to man, and, more particularly, woman? The incessant misanthropic nihilism offers no glimmer of hope, and feels designed mostly to elicit a sense of revulsion. Add claustrophobia, successfully conjured via the confining nature of the minivan and the disorienting penumbral lighting, and audience suffocation is nearly complete. Basil C. J.’s screeching death-metal aural assault provides the icing on the cake.

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