Filmmaker Pushpendra Singh made his debut in 2014 with Lajwanti, adapted from a story by renowned Rajasthani writer Vijaydan Detha. Singh actually had his eye on another story by Detha, but its rights had already been sold. Kenchuli is about a married woman from the Gujjar community whose beauty attracts other men in her village and sets off storms within their hearts and hers. The Rajasthani-language version of the feminist tale, titled Kaanchli, came out earlier this year.
Although Singh moved on to other projects – the feature Ashwatthama and the documentary Pearl of the Desert – he has finally returned to the story that he had hoped would be his first feature. Laila Aur Satt Geet (The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs) is set a place far away from Rajasthan, one that gives Detha’s work an altogether new spin.
Laila Aur Satt Geet plays out in Kashmir, among the nomadic Gujjar Bakarwal community. The allegorical film boldly imagines Laila as the personification of Kashmir, torn between the powers that want to conquer her soul. Through seven chapters set to song by Naren Chandavarkar and Benedict Taylor, Singh explores Laila’s journey from reluctant bride and dutiful wife to mischievous muse and free spirit.
The Gojri-language movie is both anchored in a living reality – the peripatetic existence of the goat-rearing Bakarwals – as well as in the realm of imagination. Filled with poetic flourishes, storytelling idioms inspired by folklore, references to the problems faced by the community, and musical interludes, Laila Aur Satt Geet is forever poised between realism and reverie.
Premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February, Laila Aur Satt Geet is being streamed at the New Directors/New Films Festival at New York City’s Lincoln Centre until December 14.
Singh, who is also from the Gujjar community and grew up in Rajasthan, felt that the source material spoke to the challenges faced by the Gujjar Bakarwals in the present. “I used to read these community magazines in which they would talk about the Gujjars that migrated to Kashmir, and I was fascinated,” the Film and Television Institute of India-trained director told Scroll.in.
A newspaper story about cow vigilantes causing trouble for the Bakarwal shepherds and the permits they were compelled to get from forest officials was another source of inspiration. The fourteenth-century Kashmiri mystic Lal Ded, whose journey is intertwined with Laila’s awakening, provided another bridge between the original setting and Singh’s version.
A scene in which Laila’s wedding is decided by a test of strength – whoever succeeds in picking up a heavy stone will marry her – provided the 42-year-old filmmaker with a metaphor for the plight of Kashmiris who do not have the autonomy to make their own choices and decide their future. “The nomadic community is sandwiched between Kashmir and Jammu” and are regarded with mistrust in both places,” Singh observed.
Another sequence in which community members argue with the local police about getting Aadhar cards was improvised with the enthusiastic participation of the performers, the filmmaker added.
Like in Singh’s previous features, Laila Aur Satt Geet features a host of non-professionals, this time from the Bakarwal community. Singh’s elliptical narratives and formal rigour are often delivered by people who never faced a camera. “But I am also fascinated by realism, so I work with non-actors and real people but also real locations,” he said.
The evocative cinematography, filled with a rich interplay between light and colour, is by Ranabir Das. Ravi Kiran Ayyagiri, who has shot Singh’s previous projects, was busy with another project. Singh liked Das’s work in Payal Kapadia’s experimental film The Last Mango Before the Monsoon (2015).
“I was fascinated by the sense of time and space that Ranabir brought to the film with the limited resources,” Singh said. “I also want to point to the contribution by Yogesh Kumar Langayan, who comes from an art background and has an understanding of painting. He became friendly with the Bakarwals, stayed with them, and made great efforts to source the material. I had a wonderful team.”
To cast his unconventional movie, Singh looked for the faces that would fit the place. Laila is played by Punjabi actor Navjot Randhawa. For the role of husband in the film, Singh cast Bakarwali singer Saddakit Birjan. Kashmiri talent Shahnawaz Bhat plays the forest guard Mushtaq, who falls for Laila while trying to procure her for his boss and is then given the runaround by her.
The rest of the actors were drawn from the community of goatherds. “I would explain the situation to the actors and let them bring it out,” Singh explained. “They would arrive at it organically and naturally. While making Ashwatthama, I remember a woman telling me, we don’t talk like that, so the lines had to be changed. It was better than what I had imagined.”
The Bakarwals reacted warmly to the film crew in their midst and went along with Singh’s vision.
“When I spoke to the Bakarwals about the concept, they didn’t find it unusual,” he said. “They were interested in the reference to Lal Ded. And they too had their own stories. They told me about a folk tale about a married woman who leaves her husband for her lover, with tragic consequences.”
Fairy tales and folk narratives are often conservative because they are meant to serve as moral lessons for their audiences, Singh pointed out. Although circulated centuries ago, this storytelling tradition also has enough scope for adaptation in a modern context, he added.
“If you look at Indian traditions, what is interesting is that they combine contemporary references while going into an imaginary realm,” he said. “This is there in our storytelling tradition, and I am only following it. The trend of realism forgets about imagination. We have done it in our oral traditions and our literature, so why can’t we do it in films?”