Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Where myth and life meet: on Pushpendra Singh's Ashwatthama

[my latest Mint Lounge column is on a Braj Bhasha film about a little boy obsessed with an immortal warrior]

“This film is not mainly concerned with telling a kahaani (story),” writer-director Pushpendra Singh said before the screening of his feature Ashwatthama, at the Habitat Film Festival in Delhi. “It is more about mood – about capturing the feel of a place and a way of life.”

When a filmmaker makes such assertions, there is often a trace of condescension aimed at the average viewer who is interested only in such trivialities as “plot” or “entertainment”. But Singh was speaking matter-of-factly and there was no superiority in his tone, even when he said making Ashwatthama was like a process of meditation for him, and that he hoped watching it would be similar for the audience. Aayiye, saath mein meditate karte hain (come, let’s meditate together), was his closing line before exiting the stage.

Shot mostly in elegant black and white (with flashes of colour for dream-like, slow-motion scenes), his film did indeed turn out to be a paean to the sights and rhythms of the starkly beautiful Chambal landscape along the Rajasthan-Uttar Pradesh border, where the story is set – and from where its cast of non-professional actors, many of them Singh’s relatives, was drawn.

But intriguingly, given his caution that this isn’t a narrative film, it begins with a mother telling her little boy a story – about the mythological Ashwatthama, who launched a nighttime massacre on the Pandava camp after the Mahabharata war was officially over, and was then cursed by Krishna to wander the earth, wounded and friendless, for all time. It’s a tale that will haunt the little boy, Ishwaku, especially when he himself is orphaned and has to live with distant relatives.

For anyone who has a more than casual acquaintance with the Mahabharata, Ashwatthama is among the epic’s most fascinating figures, both condemned and celebrated in our literature: he is one of the protagonists of Dharamvir Bharati’s renowned play Andha Yug, for instance, and a narrator in Maggi Lidchi-Grassi’s The Great Golden Sacrifice of the Mahabharata. As Pushpendra Singh pointed out, the character is a folk-hero for rural people in many parts of the country. “There are places where the Ashwatthama cult is bigger than that of more conventional heroes like Krishna or Arjuna,” he said. “Ordinary people tell each other in an awed voice, last night we heard the chant of Ashwatthama. He connects the past and the present.”

A motif of this film is the wide-ranging relationship that people have with their mythology. In one scene, devotees lament: you heeded Draupadi’s call, oh Krishna, but when will you visit me and help me with my troubles? In another, a woman spreads hope by narrating the Bateshwar legend of a daughter magically becoming a son after she jumps into a river – thereby allowing her father to honour the promise he had made to an old friend.

Elsewhere at the Habitat festival too, the link between the grand mythological world and the quotidian, present-day one arose in other contexts. For instance, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s S Durga (originally “Sexy Durga”, retitled after protests) centres on the contrast between Durga the goddess – worshipped during a festival, by men who maim themselves for her – and a flesh-and-blood woman named Durga, who is terrorized in increasingly unsubtle ways when she and her boyfriend hitch a ride late at night.

The Ashwatthama story has a different resonance – as one of the chiranjeevs or immortals of mythology, he bridges a fabled Then and a mundane Now. Characters like Arjuna and Karna are remote figures fixed in time’s amber; when we think of them, we think of a long line of dramatic incidents with them at the centre. But someone like Ashwatthama has had enough time – thousands of years – to become anonymous and unremarkable, and perhaps this is his real appeal today. It’s oddly comforting to think that a mythical character, who once did heroic and terrible things, is still roaming among us, now much diminished – just like us. The story can enrich a child’s imagination, but it is also a reminder of how slow-paced and uneventful the real world can be. Little Ishwaku’s mother might have been killed by bandits, but that doesn’t mean his life is going to be a nonstop adventure. Instead it simply drifts along – an idea that is brought to visual life in the film’s stunning final shot.

The closing dedication of Singh’s film says “Victor Erice, tumhare liye”, a reference to the Spanish filmmaker, with the words written in the Devanagari script – a reminder of how cinema can erase differences between languages and cultures. Ashwatthama certainly is evocative in places of Erice’s most famous achievement, the 1973 Spirit of the Beehive, a similarly abstract, slow-paced film about a little girl negotiating the adult world. Both films are about the wonders and terrors of childhood, about real and imagined bogeymen, from the Frankenstein monster to a cursed immortal from an ancient epic. But both stories are also about a child’s discovery of monotony and about the limits of “narrative”.


[Earlier Mint Lounge columns here. A piece about Erice's Spirit of the Beehive is here]

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