19 June 2018

Worship, motherhood, lust

My Mirror column:

A close look at two of last year’s most ‘controversial’ films – S Durga and Nude – reveals the same demons in the mirror. The first of a two-part column.

At first glance, there seems little in common between S Durga and Nude. The first, a Malayalam film directed by Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, is a surreal, often chilling road movie, featuring a couple who’re forced to hitch a ride with a carful of men somewhere in Kerala. The second, a Marathi film directed by Ravi Jadhav, is about a poor, illiterate woman who takes up a job as a nude model at the JJ School of Art in Mumbai.

When both films were barred at the last minute from the Indian Panorama screenings at last year’s International Film Festival of India in Goa, I hadn’t seen either. What seemed to unify them, then, was the mere fact that their titles – S Durga had been called Sexy Durga until the CBFC insisted on tweaking the name – spoke of the body. This May, though, both films were screened at the Habitat Film Festival in Delhi. And as I watched them, in close proximity to each other, some similarities swam to the surface.

One should start with the disclaimer that in terms of treatment, the two films couldn’t be more different. Sexy Durga had no bound script. The film was improvised during a 20-day low-budget shoot, from an idea that had been with Sasidharan from after the December 2012 gang rape in Delhi. “We did not have high-end equipment and we used to tie the cameraman [Prathap Joseph] to the vehicle,” he told The Week. Jadhav, meanwhile, worked from a screenplay by Sachin Kundalkar, a novelist and filmmaker himself. Nude is carefully plotted -- although it seems to me to fluctuate between a preexisting set of emotional/cinematic cliches and a desire to confront the certainties of our gaze. But of that, more later.

Jadhav’s film opens in a village, where Yamuna (Kalyanee Mulay) is suffering both insult and injury in her marriage. Her husband is carrying on a full-fledged affair with another woman. When his assault and public humiliation reach unbearable limits and he starts to rob her of even the meagre income she earns from rolling bidis, Yamuna decides to take her young son and run away. She arrives in Mumbai, seeking shelter under the roof of a woman she calls Chandra Akka (Chhaya Kadam).

Yamuna’s early days in the city are finely etched – the initial timidity with which she approaches the feisty Chandra as well as strangers, the exhaustion of walking the streets asking for work and the slow, dramatic uncovering of the secret of Chandra’s job. Mulay’s mobile, expressive face is put to marvellous use as she transitions from shock to moral censure to acceptance -- and eventually, the courage to follow Chandra into the art classroom and shed her clothes for money.

Rather than starting with a dogged ideological defence of nudity – couched either as personal freedom or as aesthetic choice – the film offers the potentially resistant viewer a way in, through empathy with Yamuna. The film’s portrayal of her -- first as blameless battered wife and then as self-sacrificing mother –makes it impossible to cast moral aspersions on her choice.

The really interesting metamorphosis is still to come. Slowly, Yamuna transitions -- from the hapless woman who is only doing this job to educate her son to someone who now treats herself and her body with the same dignity with which this new world of artists treat her.

But dignified distance is one thing and sensual self-control another. It is only as Mulay’s Yamuna begins to acquire a quiet new confidence, sometimes sneaking admiring glances at the students’ depictions of her body, that we remember that Kundalkar’s screenplay has thoughtfully provided us an early glimpse of her potential sensuality: the film’s first scene, where she leaves the clothes she is washing by the riverside and leaps into the water, watching from the sidelines in frank yearning as another woman revelled in her husband’s attentions.

Whatever her inner desires, though, Yamuna in her public persona allows herself no pleasures. She guards her chastity fiercely, as she assumes she must. Her primary sense of self remains tied to motherhood. As her son acquires more expensive tastes -- for cigarettes, the cinema and art school -- she takes up private modelling assignments to cater to his growing monetary demands.

The aching gulf between Yamuna’s fluid, ever more sensual presence on canvas and her tightly wound-up persona in daily life is something the film suggests visually, but does not push enough. But this, I want to suggest, is the crux of the problem both Nude and S Durga are trying to grapple with: when might we accept women as sexual beings without tarring them as “available”? Can Indian women ever escape the stifling double-bind of worship and lust?

(The second part of this column is here.)

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