Ritesh Sharma’s Jhini Bini Chadariya (The Brittle Thread) has scenes not usually associated with Varanasi. The dancer Rani writhes on a stage to a song whose lyrics leave nothing to the imagination. The choreography, which simulates group sex, is similarly graphic.
In another corner of Varanasi, the Muslim sari weaver Shahdab runs into the Israeli tourist Adah. Rani and Shahdab are much Varanasi denizens as its priests and pilgrims, the film writer-director Sharma suggests.
Jhini Bini Chadariya was premiered at the Tokyo International Film Festival in 2021. The Hindi indie has now landed up at the Dharamshala International Film Festival, which runs between November 3 and 6.
Sharma’s double-weave narrative seeks to provide a lived-in experience of Varanasi. Through Rani’s struggles to bring up her deaf-mute daughter and the shy and single Shahdab’s encounters with Adah, Sharma’s film goes to places that lie beyond the typical tourist traps.
Recent religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims who have co-existed for centuries and a spate of temple redevelopment projects in Varanasi provide the backdrop to the journeys of Rani and Shahdab. The film’s title has been inspired by a poem by the mystic Kabir.
Ritesh Sharma’s formative years were spent in Mughalsarai, which is close to Varanasi. After spending years in the Delhi theatre scene and directing the documentary The Holy Wives (2010), Sharma was keen on branching out into feature filmmaking.
“I decided to talk about the space I know best,” he said. Jhini Bini Chadariya was sparked off by a scene Sharma witnessed, of a dancer gyrating at the Manikarnika Ghat before a group of leering men. “It was a shocking image, and it stayed with me,” Sharma said. Megha Mathur, an actor from Mumbai who plays Rani, spent time with actual dancers from Varanasi to prepare for her role.
It was important for Sharma to talk about Varanasi’s fraying syncretic culture. “My father taught me about Kabir when I was a child, and I understood Kabir’s teaching only much later,” the 38-year-old filmmaker said. “It is said about Banaras that the azaan wakes up people to go to the temple. Banaras is a beautiful place, but there is a lot else happening here too. It is full of ordinary people who have interesting stories.”
Varanasi has other names – Kashi, Benares, Banaras – and storied characters full of lore about their ancient city, Sharma added. “The city has a very old feel, it has a flavour of its own. You can change Varanasi’s look but its flavour, which is found in its people, will always remain.”
His characters are broken, like the structures that are being torn down and redeveloped, Sharma said. “The film is symbolic of all that is happening around us.”