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Laila Aur Satt Geet: A lyrical and political fable

Pushpendra Singh’s fourth feature continues his preoccupation with intertwining past and present to reflect on ancient myths

Navjot Randhawa in 'Laila Aur Satt Geet'
Navjot Randhawa in 'Laila Aur Satt Geet'

Pushpendra Singh’s Laila Aur Satt Geet, which premiered at the Berlinale last year, and which played at the Dharamshala International Film Festival this month, is an adaptation in the truest sense of the word. The Gojri-language film is based on Kenchuli, a short story by Rajasthani folklorist Vijaydan Detha, but Singh merely uses the source text as a point of departure. Set in a Rajasthan village, the tale revolved around a newly-wed caught between the lecherous fancies of two feudal lords. In Singh’s script, the action shifts to Kashmir. It re-imagines the two men coveting Laila (Navjot Randhawa, last seen in Mehsampur), the film’s heroine, as Indian security forces. That is to say, Singh expands the scope of Detha’s romantic narrative with a sociopolitical revision.

Laila, a beautiful shepherdess belonging to the nomadic Gujjar Bakarwal tribe, symbolises the burdens of Kashmir. And her claim for independence from forces who desire to conquer her, transforms into a lyrical tale that is both personal and political.

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Split into seven chapters, each of which is punctuated by a folk song that marks the transitory stages—marriage, migration, regret—of Laila’s life, the film follows its eponymous heroine’s journey to self-determination. In that, it is a powerful comment on society’s fixation with possessing and dominating—whether it is a woman or an entire region.

Laila Aur Satt Geet opens with a display of male fortitude: Tanvir (Sadakkit Bijran), a young herdsman, lifts a heavy stone which gains him Laila’s hand in marriage. The plucky Laila resists the union forged against her will but ultimately gives in. After the wedding, she migrates with Tanvir, their livestock and the Bakarwali clan to a different part of the forested land. Soon, word about her unparalleled beauty spreads, bringing a besotted police officer (Ranjit Khajuria) to her door. He enlists Mushtaq (Shahnawaz Bhat), a bumbling forest ranger, to do his bidding. Mushtaq starts fancying her too. All of them, however, prove to be no match for Laila, who protects herself from their unwanted advances with wit and fury.

Singh’s fable-like fourth feature (he also wrote the screenplay) continues his preoccupation with intertwining the past and the present to reflect on ancient myths. In his 2017 drama Ashwatthama, the film-maker nodded at the Mahabharat. Here, he references the legend of Lalleshwari, the 14th century Kashmiri mystic poetess who abandoned the world to discover herself in the forest. Lalleshwari’s shadow looms over Laila’s awakening, tinting the film with a strange, spiritual quality.

Tempered with Singh’s trademark touches of physical and magical realism, the film’s allegory about the state’s excesses is both explicit and symbolic. Although Singh doesn’t specify a timeline, Laila Aur Satt Geet appears to be set in the months following the Union government’s decision to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, granted under Article 370 of the Constitution. For one, an atmosphere of fear overwhelms daily interactions: After Laila beats up the cop aggressively pursuing her, he talks of “dousing her fire”. In the next scene, Tanvir rebukes her for standing up to the policeman, reasoning that he might label them “militants”. The film alludes to growing resentment toward Article 35A and one character mentions the Kathua rape case, in which an 8-year-old girl from the Bakarwal community was raped and murdered in January 2018; characters protest about the increasing police surveillance that disrupts movement; and after an argument, the local police station demands to see the nomadic tribe’s documents of identity—something the film suggests is a new occurrence, a result perhaps of the “new India”.

But Singh’s fourth feature remains attuned to cultural mores: folk songs thrumming with desire, modest shepherd dresses, a smattering of multiple tongues, and the communal nomadic life become central to the story. The multiculturalism that permeates Singh’s filmography deepens his examination of invisibilised India. Lajwanti, Singh’s 2014 debut (also based on a Detha story), featured Manganiyars—a Muslim community of singers from Rajasthan— and Kalbeliya dancers—the snake-charming tribe from the Thar desert. In Laila Aur Satt Geet, Singh foregrounds the migrating Bakarwal community.

By now, a Pushpendra Singh outing has become synonymous with its ability to effortlessly evoke mood. That’s not to say that his formally accomplished films, stacked with moments of visual and aural invention, aren’t concerned with telling a story—just that the film-maker remains dedicated to unlocking newer approaches of demonstrating a story. Laila Aur Satt Geet is similarly infused with feeling and ways of seeing.

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The unhurried, roving camerawork by Ranabir Das (also the cinematographer-editor behind Payal Kapadia’s A Night Of Knowing Nothing) allows Singh to compose gorgeous frames that come alive with movement. One moment, the newly-wed Tanvir sits on a tree stump below Laila and in the next, he transforms into a sheep. A silhouette of a tree burning from within leaves one thinking. There’s poetry and music to be found in snakeskin, human bodies and leaves. And sweeping shots travel through valleys, sprawling green meadows, rivulets and snow-capped landscapes to paint a hypnotic portrait of what Indo-Persian poet Amir Khusro had once termed paradise on Earth (that the sequence culminates in a daring closing shot is an added bonus).

Still, whether the different readings of the film—feminist coming-of-age, political parable, suspenseful tale of desire —work for you depends largely on what you make of Laila. Unlike other protagonists, Laila isn’t prone to action, perhaps a deliberate way of underlining the lack of agency afforded to both Kashmiris and women. Singh also avoids close-ups throughout, maintaining a curious distance from his central protagonist (Tanvir and Laila sleep on separate beds), a storytelling choice that can make the film feel inert. Dressed in a printed salwar kameez and a pink dupatta, Laila Aur Satt Geet’s most striking image has Laila stare directly at the camera with a calm resolve. It’s a wordless, brief scene that has a bewitching effect—her desires feel within reach yet remain inscrutable. It’s the same with Randhawa’s magnetic turn, built on a series of reactions: a pensive glare as she looks in the mirror or a look of despair when she realises her husband doesn’t deserve her.

Like the narrative, it’s a performance that exists between the lines. For some, that could feel like a demand but for those who read it as an invitation to discover the woman and the film beyond their beauty, Laila Aur Satt Geet is a worthy excursion into the wild.

Poulomi Das is a freelance film and culture writer based in Mumbai.

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