At one point in his life, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan came very close to giving up his lifelong dream of filmmaking. After graduating from the Government Law College in Thiruvananthapuram in 2000, he worked as a lawyer for six years, trying, simultaneously, to find a foothold in filmmaking. He approached several Malayalam directors, asking them if he could assist them. “I thought that would be my way in,” says Sasidharan, 39. They all turned him down.
“They said that since I had a stable job in law, why would I want to get into films, which is not profitable anyway,” he says. His frustration eventually drove him away to, first, Delhi in 2006, and then to Riyadh the following year, where he worked in an administrative position in a construction company. “I wanted to get away from my mad passion. I thought I was wasting my time, ruining my life and making everyone unhappy,” he says. But the passion clung on to him like second skin. “I couldn’t escape it. In 2008, I decided to try again.”
In Sasidharan’s story of “mad passion” is the magic ingredient of persistence. Ever since his third feature film, Sexy Durga, bagged the prestigious Hivos Tiger Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam last week, the filmmaker has been flooded with congratulatory calls and messages. Sasidharan is happy, of course, because his film, firmly rooted in an Indian milieu, has struck a chord with a foreign audience Sexy Durga is a powerful story around an eloping couple in Kerala looking for a ride to the railway station in the middle of the night, and the horrors they endure on the way.
The award has also made him reflect on the hypocrisy of an industry and society that didn’t give him a chance before. “People can be very negative,” he says, “If someone makes a film and it’s a good one, they wonder whether it was indeed he who made it. They keep silent about its merits until somebody outside the country recognises it.”
This isn’t bitterness speaking; just experience. Sasidharan grew up in Perumkadavila village in Thiruvananthapu-ram, dreaming about making films. He watched all kinds of films — from Malayalam mainstream fare to eastern European cinema. “Ours was a middle-class family,” he says, “My father was a government servant and my mother, a housewife. We didn’t have a lot of savings. So, even though I wanted to study filmmaking, my father didn’t think it was a good idea. He wanted me to become a doctor.” Sasidharan studied zoology before switching to law. But his heart was never really into it, and thus, began his attempts to make it in the industry. He started with working as an art assistant in the Malayalam film Mankolangal (2000). “I wanted to start making my own films, but I had no backing in the industry,” he says. In 2001, Sasidharan, along with a few friends, formed Kazhcha Film Forum, a film collective that supports projects of independent filmmakers. The same year, his first short film Athisayalokam (The Wonder World) came into being in 2001. But his frustration with the lack of industry support grew, and Sasidharan decided to distance himself from it. He went on a self-imposed exile to Riyadh, returning only in 2008 to make his next short, Parole, followed by Frog (2012), which won Best Short Film award at the Kerala State Television Awards that year. It was a boost for Sasidharan, who finally made his first feature film, Oraalppokkam, the next year. The movie, about a man’s journey to find his lover, is Kerala’s first online crowdfunded feature, and fetched Sasidharan the ‘Best Director’ prize for 2014 at the Kerala State Film awards.
However, it was with his second feature film, Ozhivudivasathe Kali (An Off Day Game, 2015) that Sasidharan began to be recognised as an “auteur” to watch out for in Kerala’s independent film scene. The movie, which won widespread accolades and the Best Film trophy for 2015 at the Kerala State Film Awards, served up unpalatable truths about sexism and casteism in Indian society in an unconventional fashion. It followed the story of a group of middle-aged men who, on an alcohol-soaked outing, reveal their basest selves. Most of the cast were unknown names and it was shot without a script. This willingness to break rules lent a raw urgency to the film. While Sasidharan attributes this quality to his lack of training, his flair for storytelling and the ability to ratchet up the tension in his stories are hard to miss.
Apart from subverting conventional methods, what makes Sasidharan an important filmmaker today is his willingness to tell unvarnished truths. Real life, he says, is full of stories, many of which are deeply uncomfortable. The conversation around masculinity, violence and misogyny that began in Ozhivudivasathe Kali continues in Sexy Durga, where the director examines these deep-seated issues, which lurk under the surface of a rapidly modernising society that clings on to its so-called traditions. “We are a great country with great traditions. We are open to so many differences, and yet, at the same time, we are so backward. There are different moral standards for public life and private life, and the same people who might be worshipping women as goddesses are also harassing them,” he says. This rings especially true in light of the recent threats he faced for the title of his film. “Why do they think of it as an insult to the goddess? The name of the girl in the movie is Durga, and many girls are also named Durga. Just because they are named after goddesses doesn’t mean that they are not objectified or harassed or raped. This is exactly the kind of hypocrisy that I’m talking about,” he says.
Sasidharan doesn’t let himself be rattled by such negativity, though, and chooses, instead, to count his blessings. “I made my first film in 2001 and, for a long time, I had to continue without any support. I know that I am where I am today only because of my madness,” he says.