Sanal Kumar Sasidharan on ‘Sexy Durga’ competing at Rotterdam

‘Sexy Durga’, directed by Sanal Kumar Sasidharan,  is competing in the the ongoing 46th International Film Festival of Rotterdam, being held January 25 to February 5, one among eight films selected for the HIVOS Tiger Competition for upcoming talent.  ‘Sexy Durga’  also marks the second Indian film to feature in competition at Rotterdam in the past six years.

The director in conversation with Uma da Cunha on the eve of his hitting international spotlight

Third time lucky, Sanal. Your first film, highly appreciated by a special few including the circumspect Adoor Golapakrishnan, could not travel or get a Kerala release. Your second, based on a bestselling short story, fared better but remained within a faithful coterie. It was at 2016 Film Bazaar that your ‘Sexy Durga’ created an incessant buzz, far flung festivals wanting it. You chose Rotterdam, where you will towards end January, be competing for its top Tiger award. And you will be armed with that elusive ally, a sales agent who negotiates the distribution maze.

You have stated that with no formal training in filmmaking, this medium appeals to you for its creative challenges, and that you rely on intuition more than your skills. Each of your three films is markedly different. What has drawn your exacting eye to film?

I have never considered film as a medium to reach out to more people and thus become popular or super rich. I don’t really mind my film being totally rejected by a mass audience if it is accepted by just the few who imbibe its true meaning and experience. This underlined my thinking from the time I dreamt of becoming a filmmaker. I’ve always felt that there is a clear distinction between art-house and popular films, from their very inception. When I get an idea that I think could be developed into a film, I never relate it to the market or its audience. It does not occur to me whether viewers will approve or the censors will clear it or it will be a box office hit. Some times it may not be screened at all. All I value is that the idea excites me, challenges me as a film maker. This could be an out of mind exercise but it is my idea of film making.

Your films, steeped in Kerala’s landscapes, culture and mores, are radically different from each other in style and intent. The first, ‘Oraalppokkam’, for many, the most striking, juxtaposes a natural calamity in which people at large feel entrapped, to a live-in couple hounded out of their comfort zones by a censoring society. The film’s setting seems almost primeval, with human beings facing Nature in knowing and unknowing ways. As your first film, what drew you to present your characters in this dual way?

I love to see life in its self contradicting and self defeating postures. It is both exciting and philosophical. There is a kind of poetry in linking the two, which also transforms the local into what is universal. In “Oraalppokkam”, I was trying to find a connection between the private space of a very selfish individual with a surrounding wide and wild nature which is open and giving. If I had followed just Mahendran, the protagonist, it would have stayed as just the bare story of a Malayali male. But it is his private life that brings contrast to the plot which then extends into the story of human kind as a whole. We may be identified in innumerable distinctive ways through our habits, customs and culture, but we all lead a very common life which is universal. That is why we feel for others who do not relate to us and love to hear stories that present a world unknown to us. We make that imaginative leap to connect with the life of the character who may be totally strange and alien because we feel we belong to the same planet.

Your second film, ‘Ozhivudivasathe Kali’, and the most accessible had many of its Kerala festival audience finding it difficult to accept your interpretation of a best-selling story. This time the setting was familiar, a city like any other, in which a bunch of males who spend a long booze-filled day out in the country. But their fun and frolics have twists of social and other prejudices that are chilling. You did not have a prepared script and asked your actors to improvise as the shoot progressed. There is a quantum leap here. What made you take it?

This was an adventurous attempt. I had just a six-page story to go on, a seemingly small story with barely a dramatic moment, and a twist at the end. But its tremendous potential helped me to formulate my own plan. A process rather like poetry which can be re-read and reconstructed. I read the story in the context of our democracy, election, enforcement of law, flaws in our legal system, and, of course, it’s one jarring element, the caste system. When I approached Unni R (the writer) for the film rights, he asked in surprise if I was making a short film. There was no-one who felt that the story had such potential. On hindsight, I see why. I now see that I was not actually rewriting the story – that would have led to a flop. I also asked the writer for unlimited freedom to change or add whatever I deemed fit and he agreed. The story had only four characters placed in a room. I made it into five characters who leave a room and go into open fields and Nature. I introduced a female character and placed a TV set that followed the elections. From the start, I did not write a script. I placed the characters in the given situations and asked them to behave as they would in life: not to act, as it were. I wanted their reactions to make this an organic film. It worked out very well. It was like shuffling the pages to link them into something new. Fortunately, the story in the main, remained intact.

Your latest is a huge surprise, with a title that sizzles, Sexy Durga, with pacing and suspense attached.The film begins with the city swarming to a high decibel celebratory procession inching its way to the temple of the goddess Durga, protector of women. On another dark, desolate street, you introduce an outsider, a North Indian, the girlfriend of a Kerala youth. The two runaways look anxious, eager to reach the railway station on time. They nervously accept a car ride which then turns out to be demonic for them. The film contrasts their plight with the hysterical, nerve-tingling procession, showing its acts of human endurance (the famous piercing with a spear of the cheeks and shoulders that holds a person aloft). The young couple are subjected to a torture of the kind we are increasingly witnessing today – hoodlums playing cruel sport with their victims and hints of rape and violence in the air. The overall aura is that of a bemused, menacing and drug-induced haze. What brought about this highly charged, contemporary feel to your work?

For me, a film goes beyond story telling. I love films which say something and hint at something else. It is a device of poetry which I wanted to use from my very first film. Unlike poetry, stories have a limitation. In ‘Sexy Durga’, I try to avoid the element of a story. If asked for one, I have nothing to say. But a film actually doesn’t need a story. I was trying to create an experience through clubbing two incidents that are not directly connected. If you do not see the link between the temple procession and the young couple, you would ask for the former to be removed. Even the title has the same treatment. There is an apparent disparity in clubbing “Sexy” and “Durga”. I was trying to explore the beauty of the meaning it evokes when I put these two words together. This issue of disparity is actually a character of our society. Violence becomes non-violence when it is an act of devotion; a Goddess in the form of a woman on the streets and alone is seen as a whore, and so on. I wanted my film to represent thousands of situations in our daily realities and dreams.

What then are your expectations at Rotterdam, specially with that rare benefactor, the sales agent by your side?

I have not travelled abroad with films. My first film screened at the Prague International Film Festival and later, in Malaysia’s Cinemaya International Film Festival. Rotterdam is the first international festival abroad, which I will attend. I am excited to be in the competition section and curious to see how the film works with an international audience. At Film Bazaar, a few sales agents did get in touch and we chose the one that felt strongly about the film. Our discussions lasted a few weeks and finally we signed. This is my first experience with a sales agent as well. I hope it works well for both of us. After all I am learning all the time – it makes me curious and thrilled.

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