S Durga is a nuanced portrayal of everyday harassment
July 12, 2018
“Most people who come to watch S Durga come to see what the controversy is all about, who is the sexy Durga in the film.” Sanal Sasidharan said after a screening of the movie at the 9th Jagram Film Festival in New Delhi on 30 June, 2018. According to the filmmaker, the movie has had nearly 50 international screenings (it won the Hivos Tiger Award at the Rotterdam International Film Festival) but this is only the third or fourth screening in India. “But if you see my film, you won’t find anything objectionable in it.”
So, what is S Durga really about?
In an interview with Scroll, Sasidharan explained, “[My movie] is about how we worship goddesses on the one hand and how we treat women on the other.” The trailer, which is what most people have seen since the movie has had only a handful of screenings, gives nothing away. It shows a couple on the run flagging down a van to hitch a ride. The brief, flashing scenes of the men in the car, of the scared girl, the dark never-ending streets, the slow haunting music — all of this interspersed with heady scenes from the Garudan Thookam festival of frenzied Durga devotees — lead the viewers to believe that it is only a matter of time before these events will eventually culminate in something horrific.
The film begins with a long sequence documenting Garudan Thookam (the Hanging Eagle), a religious festival honouring Goddess Durga. A select few devotees voluntarily go through excruciating physical pain as a mark of their devotion to Durga. A thin metal rod is driven through their cheeks. Metal hooks are then pierced onto their backs and/or thighs, and they are hung on poles attached to a truck carrying a huge Durga idol. This truck then leads a procession through the streets before reaching the final destination of the ceremony. Once there, again, a select few devotees prove the strength of their devotion by walking on live coals.
The movie then cuts to a young woman waiting by the side of the street. Soon, she is joined by a young man. It becomes clear that they’re a couple on the run. As is often the case in our country, their names give away their religion. The girl is Durga, a Hindu and, as we find out, North Indian. The man is Kabeer, a Muslim from Kerala.
The couple try to get a car to give them a ride to the railway station, but none of the cars are willing to stop. Eventually, a van stops. The men that the couple encounter in the van, and the two friends the men are joined by later, are only credited as “strangers.” The movie is about the harassment that the couple faces as it tries to reach the railway station. The couple becomes increasingly suspicious of the strangers in the van and keeps trying to find another way of reaching the railway station. But they keep running into the same van again and again. The scenes from the couple’s journey are intercut with scenes from the Garudam Thookam, whose visuals of frenzied devotees only adds to the general sense of impending doom.
It is only when the movie ends without there being any physical violence — in fact, with the assurance that there will most likely be no physical violence — that we truly appreciate Sasidharan’s hold over storytelling. He manages to make a deeply disturbing film about something that is often dismissed: mental harassment.
After Durga and Kabeer first get into the car, they find the man sitting on the passenger side shady. From the moment Durga gets into the van, he keeps ogling her unashamedly, despite her clear discomfort. He even turns around in his seat and switches on the light in the van so he can look at her properly. When Durga starts coughing, he offers his bottle of water. Even after she repeatedly declines, he insists that she have it. Durga, who is clearly becoming increasingly uncomfortable with all the questions and the staring, asks Kabeer to turn off the van light. Kabeer does so, only for the passenger to immediately turn it back on. This turning the light on-and-off continues for a bit before both Kabeer and Durga give up. They ask the men to drop them off right there, to which the men refuse, saying that they promised to take them to the railway station, so they will only drop them off at the railway station. This, needless to say, alarms the couple even more. After some insistence from Durga and Kabeer, the driver does stop the van. But he berates his friend, the passenger, for making the couple uncomfortable. He walks up to Durga and Kabeer, who have gotten out of the van and are trying to flag down another car, and apologises to them and requests them to get back in the car. Even though Durga and Kabeer refuse, he insists, saying that it isn’t safe for them to stay out in the street so late at night; that if anything were to happen to them, he would feel guilty.
At this point in the film, it is not clear whether the men are really trying to help or if they have ulterior motives. What is clear however is that, for the couple, this is harassment.
Speaking to the Indian Cultural Forum, Tamanna Basu, who has worked extensively with Shakti Shalini — a shelter home based in Delhi for women who have been victims of sexual and/or gender violence— explained, “What constitutes harassment is not decided by some pre-determined standards of behaviour. It is not decided by the person inflicting it. It is about the perpetrator of harassment not taking into account how the person they are dealing with feels. The harasser ignores the discomfort, the distress that the victim is feeling. They’re not hearing the other, they are invisibilising them.”
This is what the men in the car do. They ignore the many verbal and non-verbal cues that the couple give expressing their fear. They only realise the violence of their actions when they realise that Durga is in tears behind the mask that they’ve made her wear. And this is what people, and men in particular, do in society. Women face such harassment and intrusion daily. The impact of such harassment, however, is often overlooked or dismissed.
Harassment is only acknowledged as violence if it is of an extreme degree or if it ends in a violent action. A recent study by the Atlanta law firm Barrett and Farahany found that 93% of cases of discrimination in workplace in a northern district of Georgia are dismissed before going to trial because the judges do not consider the discrimination “severe” or “pervasive” enough. Experiences of harassment are similar in India where victims are often called “paranoid” or “too sensitive” if the incident of harassment is not severe.
The film gives ample indications that the men in the van don’t have malicious intentions; that they are honestly trying to help Durga and Kabeer.
At one point, Kabeer and Durga manage to get out of the van, without any of the men noticing, and make a run for it. But they are stopped in the street by two other men on a motorcycle. When these men learn that they’re an inter-religious couple, they become aggressive and forcibly try to separate the couple. Just when it seems like they might beat up Kabeer, the strangers in the van arrive, now accompanied by two of their friends, and “rescue” the couple.
They are genuinely surprised that the couple tried to run away. They ask Durga and Kabeer why they chose to run after they’d been treated so “decently” by them. In fact, throughout the movie, at different points, all four men (the two men who pick up Durga and Kabeer, and their two friends who join later) say that they feel personally responsible for Durga and Kabeer’s safety and would feel guilty if something were to happen to them; that this is why they’re going out of their way to help the couple. In fact, after the screening, Sasidharan also remarked that the men “were trying to be helpful. They don't seem to realise that their actions could become so disturbing and scarring for the couple.”
What S Durga manages to capture is how psychologically scarring such harassment can be; it is nuanced and sensitive in its understanding of harassment. In fact, it goes beyond that and shows how we can all become perpetrators of such violence despite our best intentions.
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