Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Sexy Durga generates a steady thrum of dread that builds to cringe-inducing levels as it follows a couple, Durga (Rajshri Deshpande) and Kabeer (Kannan Nayar), over the course of a night in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Though their body language and occasional urgent exchanges speak to the tender intimacy between the two, their minimal dialogue tells us almost nothing about them except that she’s a Hindi-speaking northern Indian, he’s from Kerala, and they’re trying to hitch a ride to a railroad station so they can catch a train north. This pointed lack of detail makes the story of one couple’s journey gone horribly awry feel universal, an allegory about the violent misogyny that plagues India.
The film opens on title cards that tell a story from the Ramayana about the goddess Durga being punished for exhibiting strong emotions. That story is followed by footage of an actual Garudan Thookkam ceremony in honor of the goddess Durga, also filmed in Kerala, in which men enter into trance-like states and undergo tortuous-looking rituals like walking on red-hot coals or hanging for hours by heavy iron hooks inserted into their skin. Sasidharan sets up his point about the irony of a culture that worships powerful goddesses while treating actual women like livestock by weaving in and out of clumps of men who are busy directing or participating in the ceremonies, the wooden statue of the goddess the only female figure in their midst, while women watch warily from the sidelines, clumped together with their children.
The human Durga and her suitor are doomed from the moment they accept a ride, getting into a white van with two men who turn out to be crooks on their way to deliver a load of weapons to a couple of confederates deep in the countryside. Building suspense without breaking with the tone of unvarnished realism he established in the footage depicting the Garudan Thookkam ceremony, Sasidharan illuminates the aggression and sense of entitlement that leads to rape and shows how an assault often starts with bullying or insinuating conversation and nonsexual forms of physical encroachment.
In the van, the man riding shotgun leaves the dome light on so he can stare at Durga while peppering the cowed couple with insolent and intrusive questions. Kabeer and Durga get out of the car several times and try to hitch another ride, only to encounter intimidation or frightening silence everywhere. In the scariest encounter, two men on a motorcycle slow down to block them from hailing a car, showering them with the questions and accusations before getting off the bike to approach them in what’s clearly an ominous end game.
Every time the couple escapes, the van comes back for them, and they always wind up getting in because the alternative is scarier. At times, like when the men in the van return in the nick of time to chase off the motorcycle men, it seems as if they may want to protect the couple—though they’re probably just claiming their prey. Even the police offer no hope of rescue, as Sexy Durga makes clear when the van is stopped at a checkpoint by a group of cops only interested in collecting bribes, who bully the van’s driver and his companion by inventing imaginary infractions while overlooking real ones, like the fact that the passengers in the back seat are essentially hostages.
The improvised dialogue of the scenes inside the van can feel repetitive, but the sense of menace and the impossibility of Durga and Kabeer’s escape grows increasingly and oppressively palpable as the vehicle’s other passengers—which now include the crooks with weapons—talk rowdily, get drunk, and escalate their bullying dehumanization of the couple while blasting thrash-metal music with dystopic lyrics. Every so often a dog howls, another car approaches, or a train whooshes tantalizingly by, on tracks that run parallel to the road. But for the most part, as the final zoom out from the car emphasizes, Durga and Kabeer are marooned with their tormentors, lost in a vast expanse of inky darkness where chaos rules.