The songs of Laila

Updated: Mar 08, 2020, 08:32 IST | Meenakshi Shedde | Mumbai

Laila Aur Satt Geet is a film of mesmerising beauty, that is many things—a feminist story, a folk tale, political commentary on Kashmir and "Me Too," and the complicated issue of a woman's consent.

Illustration/Uday Mohite
Illustration/Uday Mohite

Meenakshi SheddeOne of the most intriguing things about Pushpendra Singh's new film Laila Aur Satt Geet (The Shepherdess And The Seven Songs), is Laila herself, the woman at the heart of the story. It is a film of mesmerising beauty, that is many things—a feminist story, a folk tale, political commentary on Kashmir and "Me Too," and the complicated issue of a woman's consent. Set in Kashmir and in the Gojri dialect, it has been adapted from a Rajasthani folk tale, Vijaydan Detha's Kenchuli (Snakeskin). The film wowed audiences at the 70th Berlin Film Festival that ran from February 20 to March 1. It is Singh's fourth feature after Lajwanti (which also premiered at the Berlinale in 2014), Ashwatthama and Maru Ro Moti.

Laila, a beautiful Bakarwal shepherdess from Kashmir, is married against her consent, to the dim-witted shepherd Tanvir (Sadakkit Bijran). So great is Laila's beauty that two policemen try to proposition her. Furious, the feisty Laila thrashes both of them, straddling the chest of the station house officer, pummeling and kicking him. It is rare in Indian cinema to see such images of a lone woman taking on the powerful police. When she asks her husband to protect her, he tells her not to offend the police, "because they can label us militants and kill us." A chilling commentary on men, as well as the Indian police and army in Kashmir. In fact, the film also makes reference to the revoking of Article 370 and Article 35 (A), which guaranteed special status to Jammu and Kashmir; to migrants within India being harassed for permits and Aadhar cards, and underlines the fluidity of borders.

Laila is underwhelmed by her husband: in bed, she is bold and sometimes on top; another time, though she is pregnant, her husband insists on sex. She is drawn to the gentle, persistent village policeman Mushtaq (Shahnawaz Bhat), inviting him for nightly trysts, but fooling him each time. There's a natural, kabhi haan kabhi naa quality to her consent, as well as Stockholm's Syndrome. And one night, she discovers Mushtaq with her best friend.

Scorned, and in contempt of men, Laila is inspired by 14th century Kashmiri rebel mystic poet Lal Ded, who had rejected patriarchy and even her clothes, as she retreated into the forest. Though pregnant, Laila wears a snakeskin around her neck—symbolic of shedding her old identity—and sheds her clothes, and goes alone into the majestic Himalayas. The climax is greatly elevated by Parvathy Baul's haunting baul song.

Laila is also a metaphor for Kashmir, whom men—and the powerful state and its forces —try to subdue. Yet, Laila triumphs—even though through renunciation. It gives the woman agency, and hope.

Singh's direction and craftsmanship confirms his status as a great auteur. Occasionally, the film has resonances of the great Armenian-Georgian director Sergei Paradjanov. Navjot Randhawa is quietly powerful as Laila, and Shahnawaz Bhat is delightful as the patient policeman, willing to be a fool in love. Singh's screenplay is richly nuanced. Ranabir Das' cinematography is majestic and lyrical, including an image of a tree, with a hollow in its trunk that is on fire. Samarth Dixit's editing seamlessly combines disparate elements, including folklore, contemporary politics and sexuality. The film is also elevated by beautiful folk songs—of marriage, migration, regret, renunciation with musical traditions drawn from as far as Iran and Tajikistan. All in all, a rich treasure trove in one film. Don't miss it.

Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist.
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