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The return of Lal Ded

Pushpendra Singh’s hypnotic new film, a feminist story set in Kashmir, premiered recently at the Berlin Film Festival

A still from ‘Laila Aur Satt Geet’, where the protagonist is inspired by 14th century Kashmiri mystic poet Lal Ded.
A still from ‘Laila Aur Satt Geet’, where the protagonist is inspired by 14th century Kashmiri mystic poet Lal Ded.

You wouldn’t think, seeing Pushpendra Singh’s exquisitely poetic films, that he is a big fan of German director Werner Herzog, some of whose films have impossibly dramatic arcs. In fact, he is “very influenced" by Herzog’s Rogue Film School, he says. The school is “for those who are willing to learn about lock-picking or forging shooting permits in countries not favouring their projects. In short: for those who have a sense of poetry". Singh is Herzog’s devotee. “We had no shooting permits in some areas of Jammu and Kashmir. But I confidently told the inspector general of Jammu that I knew the higher-ups. After that I was not stopped anywhere," he says. His latest film, Laila Aur Satt Geet (The Shepherdess And The Seven Songs), dazzled audiences at the 70th Berlin Film Festival. It played in the new, highly prized Encounters section of the festival, now headed by artistic director Carlo Chatrian, that ran from 20 February-1 March. It got sustained applause at each of its multiple, sold-out screenings.

Laila Aur Satt Geet is a haiku-like film that is, at once, a folk fable, a feminist story and contemporary political commentary. Adapted from a Rajasthani folk tale, Vijaydan Detha’s Kenchuli (Snakeskin), it is set in Kashmir. Laila (Navjot Randhawa), a Kashmiri woman from the nomadic Bakarwal community, is married against her wishes to the slow-witted shepherd Tanvir (Sadakkit Bijran). She is propositioned by two policemen, the local station house officer (Ranjit Khajuria) and a local village policeman, Mushtaq (Shahnawaz Bhat). Outraged, she thrashes them both. Later, as her husband refuses to protect her—he tells her not to offend the police, who can label them militants and kill them—Laila is attracted to the gentler policeman Mushtaq. She invites him for nightly trysts, but fools him each time. The story is told through marvellous folk songs—of marriage, migration, regret. Finally, she wears an abandoned snakeskin around her neck—symbolic of exchanging her old identity for a new one. Inspired by 14th century Kashmiri mystic poet Lal Ded, she rejects her husband, patriarchy, materialism and even her clothes, and goes deep into the mountains in search of God. Singh says he was greatly inspired by “Lal Ded, who was against all boundaries. She is the best solution for Kashmir".

“I could connect the feudalism of Kenchuli with Kashmir, where the security state is the new feudal lord," says Singh, whose film is in the Gojri dialect of Kashmir. A trained actor from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, he has been a Berlinale regular—first at the Berlinale Talents; his debut feature, Lajwanti (The Honour Keeper), was shown there in 2014, as were two German films Asta Upset (2014) and Camera Threat (2017), in which he acted. “For me, Kashmir is Laila, the Indian state is the policeman and the Kashmiri mainstream politician is the security guard," says Singh. The film is daringly political, referencing Article 370 and Article 35 (A), which guaranteed special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and were, in essence, revoked by the Bharatiya Janata Party government last year; the proposed National Register of Citizens and permits for migrants travelling within India, and Aadhaar cards. It also underlines the fluidity of borders: Bakarwals, he says, have traditionally travelled to Afghanistan, Tajikistan, even Armenia.

Singh says he met Randhawa, who had previously acted in Kabir Singh’s Mehsampur, at the Dharamshala International Film Festival, where he screened his Ashwatthama in 2017. “Paintings and cinematic images can both powerfully evoke feelings. So Navjot and I discussed the dynamics of the Ashtanayika paintings that refer to eight kinds of the nayika’s longing, separation and grief." As Randhawa reflected at a Berlin screening: “Indian women don’t even know how to love. We are told what love is, we are told how to love. So I am very privileged to have had choices in life that many Indian women don’t."

Shahnawaz Bhat did not even have an audition. “Pushpendra cast me in a Bressonian way. We did not even meet. He cast me because of my voice, after we spoke on the phone. ‘You have a tehzeeb (civilized manner) and thehrav (calmness) in your voice, that is Mushtaq’s,’ he said. It’s not the macho guy who gets the girl, but the normal guy with the dheeli-dhaali chaal who gets the girl," Bhat continues (he still doesn’t get Laila, though). He recalls a “difficult scene that took 39 takes and wore me out till I learnt to completely submit—and then the director got what he wanted".

Bhat has earlier played the lead in Aamir Bashir’s Harud (Autumn, 2010), which was shown at the Toronto, Dubai and Fribroug International Film Festivals. He was also in Danish Renzu’s Half Widow, and had been selected earlier for a theatre workshop by actor Naseeruddin Shah “for doing Gabbar Singh’s dialogues from Sholay in Donald Duck’s voice". “Kitne aadmi the?" Bhat squawks, hilariously.

Ranabir Das’ cinematography gives Laila Aur Satt Geet much of its extraordinary poetic imagery. These include an image of aching beauty, of a vast Himalayan range in grey shadow, with a white snow peak set on fire by the rising sun, and another of a tree whose hollow trunk is on fire, literally like a womb in flames. “I love Indian miniature paintings, and discussed these with Ranabir," says Singh.

The film also has a rich resonance of Armenian-Georgian director Sergei Paradjanov, and Singh acknowledges this. “Yes, Paradjanov is in my film," he says. “His films are more tableau-like, musical and poetic. But I am also political, and I try to bring all these elements together through culture and music."

Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia delegate to the Berlin Film Festival, a critic and curator.

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