Shabnam Sukhdev’s documentary Peacock Plume opens with a tender moment. Odissi dancer Shubhada Varadkar is advising a young student. The sequence is interspersed with a dance recital by Varadkar, in which she sways to a prayer.
“The solution to your problems is within you. Go inside and go within,” Varadkar tells her student with a warm smile. The dancer’s words have deeper meaning in Sukhdev’s 50-minute documentary. The Public Service Broadcasting Trust production, which will be screened on Saturday at the annual PSBT festival Open Frame, is a tribute to Varadkar’s resilience through her personal battles, including a failed marriage and cancer.
The film is based on Varadkar’s autobiography Mayurpankh. We learn of her early years, her rise to prominence on the dance circuit, her struggle with ovarian cancer, and her irrepressible love for Odissi. The early portions of Peacock Plume reveal how Varadkar fought back against a failed marriage, while the rest traces her life after she was diagnosed with cancer in 2006. “Sometimes I question, why me?” Varadkar says in the documentary. “What a frightening thought never to dance again.”
Varadkar isn’t one to allow cancer to get in the way of her passion. “She used to do a chemotherapy session, rest for a week and immediately go for a performance,” her niece says in the film. “She never stopped dancing, and that kept her and our family going. We knew that till the moment she is dancing, everything will be alright.”
Shabnam Sukhdev has previously made the documentaries The Last Adieu (2014), a biographical sketch of her father, renowned documentarian S Sukhdev, and Earth Crusader (2016), about sustainability activist Didi Contractor.
The eyes did it for Sukhdev, she said in a phone interview from Toronto in Canada. “Shubhada ji was my daughter’s dance teacher, and she used to speak very highly about her talent and her compassionate approach to teaching,” Sukhdev told Scroll.in. “I then attended one of her stage performances, and it was exemplary. And what stayed with me were her eyes. I was drawn to her eyes – as they say, eyes are the windows to a soul. I was curious to know about her and her journey.”
Shot over six months in 2017, the film includes interviews with Varadkar and her family members, friends and students. (The clan includes Leo Varadkar, the first openly gay prime minister of the Republic of Ireland, but he doesn’t feature in the film). These conversations are interwoven with key events in Varadkar’s life and glimpses of her performances.
The attempt was to strike a balance between the performer and the cancer survivor. “The more important part of the story was how attached she was to her dance and how it kept her going,” Sukhdev said. Varadkar’s relationship with her mother also features in the film. “The mother played the most important role because she was the most affected,” Sukhdev said. “For me, that resonated the most because of my relationship with my mother. And I knew I had to weave it into the story.”
At a private screening, Varadkar’s mother gave her nod of approval to the project in her own way – she wept. “She was like a pillar of strength on camera,” Sukhdev said. “When she saw the film, she relived the entire journey. For me that was an accomplished moment when the family kind of accepts the film. I feel like I had done my job.”
The documentary is equally about the gracefulness of the Odissi dance form. “Each of her performances expresses the moods and the situations in the film,” Sukhdev said.
Sukhdev credited Varadkar with being an equal partner in the creation of the film. “She really worked within what we could offer her,” Sukhdev said. “Even while dancing in the open, she danced without her slippers on the ground, as dancing with slippers would be disrespect to the dance. The story is so personal to her, she wanted to give it her all. The film is about Odissi dance but it is also an autobiographical film about Shubhada and her spiritual core. It is about an exploration of every stage in life. It kind of aligns with my own process of life.”