Pushpendra Singh’s Lajwanti ( The Honour Keeper, 2014) and Laila Aur Satt Geet ( The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs, 2020) were part of a recently concluded series on Indian independent cinema at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York.
Lajwanti, an ode to filmmaker Mani Kaul, and Laila are surreal fables that transport their viewers to the Thar desert in Rajasthan and the mountains in Jammu and Kashmir, respectively. Both films are carried by whimsical female protagonists who exercise agency and find ways to negotiate their freedom and independence.
Born in Sainyaa, near Agra, Pushpendra Singh is an alumnus of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune. In an interview to Frontline, he spoke about his work, the influence of avant-garde cinema on him, and more. Edited excerpts:
Laila and Lajwanti are based on the works of Rajasthani writer Vijaydan Detha. What drew you to his literature?
I was already familiar with Vijaydan Detha’s work because I’ve always been interested in literature. Before joining FTII, Pune, for an acting course, I was doing a lot of plays with Barry John in Delhi. I did a short video and a live performance using a story by Phanishwar Nath Renu.
So, I was looking for more stories and that’s when I started reading Detha. I was immediately attracted to his folk tales as I come from a village background with similar settings found in his writings, and felt they were very cinematic in the way they were written.
I found it fascinating that he would give Marxist readings to all the folk tales he collected and sometimes twist them. Both Lajwanti and Laila, for instance, are very feminist stories. They deal with the desires of women, their struggles against patriarchy, and how they find freedom in their own ways.
Detha was a visionary ahead of his time because the stories were written in the late 1960s when even the women’s emancipation movement hadn’t started in India. People were talking about women’s liberation but not emancipation.
How did the visual language of both films develop, especially Laila, which looks very aesthetic?
The visual treatment plays a very specific role in my films, and it’s very different in both films. For Lajwanti, I drew inspiration from Rajasthani miniature paintings for the shot compositions. Whereas for Laila, I visited quite a few museums while travelling with my film Ashwatthama (2017).
At the Prado Museum in Madrid, I discovered a series of paintings inspired by the life of Jesus Christ because he was a shepherd. And all these paintings depicted his life and the village life in general with sheep and goats. I was particularly fascinated by the texture of the light emanating from the portraits.
So, I exchanged the images of those paintings with my cinematographer, Ranabir Das, and he also shared many paintings with me. We then discussed the kind of light design we wanted during the day and night. Moreover, Kashmir itself has very cinematic and inherently beautiful landscapes.
Also, since Kashmir has become more about its disputed territory than its inhabitants, I included the idea of giving character to the landscapes in the film, where you see shots of a burning tree and so on.
You share the sensibilities of avant-garde filmmakers such as Mani Kaul. How have Kaul and other masters influenced your work?
If you look at Mani Kaul’s works, they were experimental but very daring, too. He did not shy away from trying out new things in his works and challenged the idea of realism in his films. But I’m doing it in a very different way. I work with real people in natural settings and try to include realism in my movies. But I also challenge reality, which is why I use magical realism devices.
I’m fond of using the Brechtian techniques of emotionally detaching the viewers from my material. I want them to think intellectually about the story, the themes, and the film form. The objective is to make them aware and not to dumb them down.
The languid camera movements in your films draw attention to the composition and framing...
I try to play with time: sometimes I slow it down, sometimes characters break the fourth wall, then there’s the occasional use of intertitles, and so on. These are some of the Brechtian devices of which Jean-Luc Godard was a master, and you can notice them in the works of Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, Kamal Swaroop, and Amit Dutta, too.
Would you like to discuss your next project and plans as a filmmaker?
I’ve been researching hijras (eunuchs) in New Delhi for quite some time and have done several workshops with them. I’ve also gone underground because tracking them and winning their trust is difficult. My next film is about their lives in the underbelly of the city.
Even though they are subjected to violence and exploitation, they deal with their identity crisis in a very beautiful way. It’s like a contrast between the vibhats and shringarrasas. And since I am deeply invested in their lives, I might do another film also, which I want to set in Mumbai during the monsoon. I also intend to make a Kashmir trilogy, wherein Laila was the first part.
I have some ideas and stories, but that has taken a backseat because of the situation in Kashmir. And also, owing to the independent way I make films, it’s not easy to make them in the current environment.
Arun A.K. writes on cinema and literature, and is based in Mumbai.