Earlier in the week at Tribeca, Beneath the Harvest Sky and Broken Hill Blues explored the coming of age stories of young men in isolated locations in America and Sweden, respectively. In Vara: A Blessing, the focus is on a young Indian female, and instead of examining the insecurities of growing up without direction, the film is a lovely portrait of choices young people make upon learning they don’t always end up exactly where they’ve planned.
Vara: A Blessing marks a distinct tonal shift from director Khyentse Norbu, a trained Bhutanese monk, whose previous works were more modern and less stylized. Norbu’s first film, The Cup (1999), winner of the Audience Award at Sundance, told the story of young monks trying to tune into a soccer broadcast, while Travelers and Magicians (2003) considered the allure of Americanization through a classic road-movie setup.
In Vara: A Blessing, Vinata (choreographer and actress Geeta Chandran) is a “devadasi”, a woman devoted to the service of a Hindu deity who teaches the ancient divine Bharata Natyam dance. Her daughter Lila (Shahana Goswami) wants nothing more than to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a spiritual vessel ceremonially wed to Krishna, but Lila harbors an infatuation with Bollywood dance. She memorizes routines from television to perform in front of the sacred statue, rather than the customary ritual. The Devadasi tradition is dying, having been outlawed by the British during colonial rule and often equated with prostitution. When Lila performs the dance channeling Krishna’s lover, the goddess Radha, her fantasies take over and the image of Krishna in her mind is replaced by Shayam (Devesh Ranjan), a local, untouchable Muslim boy.
Shayam is a sculptor who wishes to hone his skills and move to the city. When an elderly sculptor agrees to teach him further, Shayam asks Lila if she would pose for him for a statue of goddess Saraswati. She agrees, despite the act violating any number of laws in their respective religions, and if found out could prove dangerous. Meanwhile, the matchmaker Subha (Rohit Raj) is on the prowl for a wife for the young landlord Prakesh (Panjak Pawan) whose eyes – and telescope – are fixated on the lower-class Lila. It’s a story of forbidden love amidst outdated binds and the juxtaposition of the transcendence of the soul with the realities of corporeal containment.
Vara: A Blessing is a visually stunning exploration of the cross between spiritual devotion and bodily temptation that incorporates hypnotic use of tradition Indian dance and music. The sensual attraction that builds up in Lila emerges on screen as rich, colorful dreamscapes in which Shyam is painted blue like her idol Krishna. This imagery conflicts with the neutral greys and browns of the rainy Indian countryside and Shyam’s clay sculptures of the real world. The clay itself also becomes a character in its own right as Lila and Shyam channel Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in the infamous pottery scene in Ghost, but in a more subtly beautiful way.
Goswami’s dance ability is mesmerizing and the charming, innocent curiosity conveyed through her smile becomes all the more heartbreaking when faced with the consequences of her actions. Ranjan is the less convincing half of the star-crossed couple, though it’s not clear whether because he is a poor actor or because Shyam is purposefully not as infatuated with Lila as she is with him.
Norbu enlisted cinematographer Bradford Young (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) to capture the splendid imagery, and Wong Kar Wai’s regular editor William Chang to seamlessly mesh the scenes of colorful illusion with drab, everyday life. One issue here, however, is that some intricacies of Indian tradition or social structure may have been lost in Norbu’s decision to make the film his first English language endeavor. Hearing the characters speak a familiar language is interesting, in some ways comforting, but suggests a slight loss of subtly, as if the actors would feel more comfortable and their moods and interactions clearer if they were allowed to speak their native language.
Ultimately Vara: A Blessing is about Lila growing up. She learns of the inevitable rift between her dreams and her reality. She can have the fantasy if she wants it, but potentially at great physical cost to both her and her mother. Choosing reality is the “safer route”, though even more difficult to accomplish. It is a beautiful examination of the choices we make in the transition from childhood to adulthood, though not all of us get to do so through transcendent music and dance.