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The sacred and the profane

Kamal Swaroop and Vaishali Sinha's new films offer two strikingly different approaches to documentary-making

A production still from ‘Pushkar Puran’. Ashok Meena
A production still from ‘Pushkar Puran’. Ashok Meena

A documentary on the Pushkar Mela, the annual fair in Rajasthan, would normally mean a glossy assemblage of sand dunes, dreadlocked tourists and turbaned men singing Padharo mhare des. But Kamal Swaroop’s Pushkar Puran sidesteps the picturesque, offering instead vivid snapshots of life in and around the fair.

Swaroop, known for his cult 1988 film Om Dar-B-Dar, is one of the few known experimental film-makers working in India. Pushkar Puran, like his other recent work, is elliptical non-fiction. Viewers might have to find their own way into this fascinating film; my advice would be to let the images wash over you without worrying about the overarching narrative. Instead of a traditional narrator, there’s a wealth of arcane visual detail: a close-up of a camel’s eye, women sipping coconut water through pink straws, a particularly strange series of images framed like channels on TV.

Pushkar Puran also crackles with a matter-of-fact earthiness. A profane cross-dressing cow-keeper describes the sexual prowess of an alpha monkey. Various legends are narrated, one of which has this cracker of a concluding line: “They shoved the girl into the lotus face of the cow and pulled her out of the rear, named her Gayatri, borne of the cow." This forthright attitude is something the film shares with another documentary which, like Swaroop’s film, screened at the recently concluded Mumbai film festival: Ask The Sexpert.

Vaishali Sinha’s film is as straightforward as Swaroop’s is fragmented. This is a docu-portrait of Mahinder Watsa, whose sex-advice newspaper column, which he began in 2005 when he was 80, made him a minor celebrity. Like its subject, Ask The Sexpert is bright and witty, built around Watsa’s calm acceptance of his fame and his genuinely progressive outlook. A joyful film about a man who has done as much as anyone to make Mumbai, and India, less prudish and more open-minded.

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