Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, 2021
The image of Laila (Navjot Randhawa), facing directly at the camera appears early in the film, the colorful print dress of the nomadic Gujjar-Bakwarwali tribe to which she belongs, against the backdrop of the forest behind her. A brief scene earlier sealed her marriage to a traveling shepherd Tanvir (Sadakkit Bijran), and the story of the next phase of her life is about to unfold. The green forest of Kashmir behind her seems to gradually go out of focus, as if to reveal a mystery and deny the vanishing point. The silent determination of her face owns the narrative about to unfold. Her gaze, calm and confident, is neither submissive nor dominant. It clearly displays the multitude she contains.
This is Laila of Pushpendra Singh’s Laila Aur Satt Geet/ The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs (2020). She calls Lalleshwari, a 14th century mystical poet of Kashmir “My Lalla,” who she says, “discovered herself in the forest.” Her tale of life in the forest fuses with elements of a woman’s independence that the director Singh found in Rajasthani writer Vijaydan Detha’s folktale. Laila bears the burdens of Kashmir, seeking her own discovery while chased by the forces staking a claim on her despite their own inadequacies. The film is a narrative of a woman’s life, representing the forest and the people of the land. As she occupies the aspirations of the land, men, and other groups remain out of focus.
Think of the seven folk songs in the film as a counterpoint to the phases of life outlined for men in the ancient (for some, foundational) narratives of the Indian belief systems. The songs (of marriage, migration, regret, playfulness, …….) chart the journey of a woman from a bride, a wife, a lover, a desiring body, a would-be mother, to a seeker of greater truths. These various subject positions are quite different from the canonical texts meant for men that have erased women, but very real and true nevertheless. Men have no access to the complexity of a woman’s phases of life, a brute fact that speaks for the misery they bring upon women.
Laila’s life as a shepherdess is quite circumscribed for a newlywed. She tends to goats, carries prepared meals to her husband in the woods, and attends to her duties as a woman in a community of shepherds. Her beauty, said to be rare in a land flourishing with the splendor of nature, serves her husband, who says, “it is a sin to be born beautiful in a poor family.” For the members of the State, the inspector and his assistant, Laila’s is a potential easy prey, much like other women of the traveling tribes to be devoured at will. In the midst of these competing male desires, Laila acquires a reputation of independence and strong will, “not looking at other men” and being faithful to her husband.
Her life with Tanvir oscillates between duty and desire. As she taps into her own sexual desires, which surprise her, the subordinate police officer Mushtaq (Shahnawaz Bhatt) makes several attempts to woo her. Just as she deftly navigates between these men, she reflects on herself. She finds that their desire is rootless, unconnected to their convictions or inner strengths. In Singh’s film, it becomes evident that male desire is superficial at the moment when it becomes clear that a woman’s desire is bottomless, in search of something for herself as well as for the fundamental questions of life. In search for identity and truth, a world beyond men beckons women.
Laila’s life is an allegory, a tale caught between the competing forces that attempt to possess her. Since she inhabits the land, “owns it,” she makes emphatic moves to claim independence. The husband who guards her, and the men of the State who are supposed to guard the land and its people, are inadequate for her desires and the dreams of the land. Singh’s film is imminently political. The fact that a tribe that moves across borders, the Bakarwals, take center-stage in the film is an indication enough of the position the film assumes in the narrative of Kashmir. The strength of the film comes from its skill in navigating the political value and its place and role in meeting the aesthetic desires of the viewer. Singh’s film is a fitting achievement against that challenge.
Singh and cinematographer Ranbir Das make certain the landscape of Kashmir, its valleys, hills, sprawling greens, and rough rocks become a character in the film. The film has a series of striking tableau-composed shots and scenes, often pausing on the images for a state of reflection, to underscore the distinctiveness of the land that has assumed such a vital space in our imagination. For the most part, the film shuns close-ups, allowing characters to move across space, appearing in figures of light and shades. Human bodies and animals bring life to the images as do the leaves, the streams, and the rivulets.
A narrative inspired by a mystic poet, revered in the land, when the central character is on a path to self-discovery is punctuated by moments of magic realism. One of the most striking of these, a tree burning from within, silhouetted against the dimly lit landscape is interlaced between magic and physical realism. It instantly places the viewer in a mode of questioning permitted by the director’s gift in his work.