By Varsha Ramachandran.
The pace, while slow, is steady, ensuring reflection without boredom, something to which the beautiful frames, colour combinations, and lilting score also contribute.”
Director Pushpendra Singh’s second film adapting Rajasthani writer Vidaydan Detha’s works, The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs, which premiered at the 70th annual Berlinale, reimagines the myths surrounding a 14th-century mystic poetess from Kashmir—Lal Ded—with the character of Laila, a member of the Gujjar-Bakarwal tribe. The Gujjars and the Bakarwals are nomadic tribes found in India, Pakistan and some parts of Afghanistan, who migrate with their sheep, cows and buffaloes respectively, moving to the upper Himalayas in the summers and returning to the plains in the winters. Singh tells us the story of Laila, a shepherdess who marries Tanvir, and moves with his tribe to a new region in the politically fraught atmosphere of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The film blends the character of Laila with that of mystic poetess Lal Ded, who is thought to have discarded her clothes in her quest for enlightenment, renouncing her worldly identity. What then takes centre-stage is the film’s decision to embrace syncretism, in a space that today privileges sharp religio-political boundaries.
Describing Lal Ded, poet Ranjit Hoskote writes, “she was constructed differently by different communities…she was simultaneously Lallesvari or Lalla Yogini to the Hindus and Lal’arifa to the Muslims.” The inherent multiplicity of Lal Ded’s existence and perception is key to Laila’s identity in the film, as we follow her tussle with her own emotions. The film is divided into seven parts, based on seven songs: The Song(s) of Marriage, Migration, Regret, Playfulness, Attraction, Realization and Renunciation. The songs lay the template for Laila’s affective journey through the film, as she explores her shifting identity, and the expectations and desires that come with it. Navjot Randhawa’s portrayal of Laila only adds to the complexity of the character. Laila, who is considered exceptionally beautiful, finds herself in a strained marriage to Tanvir, who is shown to “earn” her hand in marriage by barely managing to lift a heavy rock, and migrates to new lands with her new tribe. As she finds her space, she also faces unwanted advances from local authorities, attempting to “tame” her ferocity; in a striking scene, Laila physically beats up a police officer when frustrated with his constant advances and lewd remarks. A younger policeman reassures his supervisor that he will “tame the shrew,” while using this as an opportunity to confess his love for her. The playfulness of the writing is remarkable, as Laila plays a coy game with the younger officer, encouraging his affections while attempting to have Tanvir catch him red handed, thereby putting the latter’s masculinity to test, which he fails continuously, much to her chagrin.
Laila’s relationship with desire is significant as it takes on a nameless, playful form while she attempts to understand her unique position in what seems on the surface to be a loveless marriage. She is dedicated to her husband, or so it seems, but is also, simultaneously, enjoying her unspoken game with the young policeman. She is constantly putting Tanvir to the test, while also testing her own loyalties to him. All of this becomes almost insignificant in the scenic backdrops of Jammu and Kashmir that the film constantly returns to. Through the story of Laila, the film attempts to depict the political fragility of Kashmir at this turning point where the tribe’s migration is suddenly being monitored by authorities drunk on their own power, who are now mandated to check their “kaagaz”/documents—i.e., the Aadhaar card. Laila’s desire to free herself from her ties to male, or phallogocentric, discourse, echoes the desires of the land itself to return to a space of multiplicity free of the rigidity of religious identity and its markers. The film harkens to this parallel through its slow, dramatic visuals of the landscape that sometimes mark Laila as but a tiny dot on the picturesque Himalayan backdrops, depicting the insignificance of her identity tussle in the larger schema of things. The film ends with a stunningly brave frame of Laila who, inspired after watching a snake shed its skin, discards her clothing and wanders off into the Himalayas to find herself free of the shackles of marriage and her Gujjar-Bakarwali identity.
The film’s script is often ironically detached, perhaps symbolic of the loss of a homeland that, as the authorities in the narrative term, is a “thing of the past.” As viewers, we experience this sense of loss and detachment affectively through the 96 minutes, despite the narrative’s playful tone. The moments of laughter oft come with a sense of stark nostalgia, making the tone of the film constantly self-reflexive and sombre. The pace, while slow, is steady, ensuring reflection without boredom, something to which the beautiful frames, colour combinations, and lilting score by Benedict Taylor and Naren Chandavarkar also contribute. All in all, Pushpendra Singh’s fourth film is a strong watch, advocating for rumination on the demands for singular identification in religio-politically fraught Jammu and Kashmir today.
The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs will premiere on VOD in North America on 15 March 2022.
Varsha Ramachandran is a postgraduate in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Southern California. Her research interests primarily include contemporary Indian cinema, fan studies, mythology, and adaptation/performance theory.