Of gods and men and women

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infoboxBY RANIA RICHARDSON  |  Spiritual devotion ripens into carnal passion for a young temple dancer in “Vara: A Blessing.” The modern-day tale is a glimpse into the practices of an intriguing Hindu subculture of devadasis.

As a practitioner, Lila (Shahana Goswami) spends her days worshiping Krishna and studying the classical dance form, Bharatanatyam, in her mother’s school. When a low caste laborer, Shyam (Devesh Ranjan), invites her to pose for a statue of the goddess Saraswati, Lila’s motivation is spiritual at first. Soon she finds that in her dreams, the glowing blue image of Krishna seems to resemble Shyam, and she is his female counterpart.

 ‘Vara’ is a feast of holy and worldly passions

At one time, devadasis enjoyed the patronage of kings and held a high social status as religious devotees and performers. During the British rule of the Indian subcontinent, the patrons lost their power and some devadasis turned to prostitution. Lila’s reputation is called into question and Shyam is victimized in their traditional village that is run by provincial mores.

Photo by Pawo Choyning Dorji Shahana Goswami as Vara.

Photo by Pawo Choyning Dorji
Shahana Goswami as Vara.

The story of forbidden love is complicated by a well-positioned secret admirer who is entranced by Lila as she blooms into adulthood. The sight of sexualized Bollywood dancing on his television screen is a counterpoint to the sacred nature of her movement style. An expert in Bharatanatyam, Geeta Chandran was the choreographer for the film and plays Lila’s mother.

The third feature for filmmaker and Buddhist monk Khyentse Norbu (“The Cup,” “Travelers and Magicians”) is his first in the English language, and is adapted from Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Bengali short story, “Blood and Tears.” Shot in a verdant palette by Bradford Young (cinematographer for “Pariah”), Sri Lankan locations stand in for rural India.

A nexus of holy and worldly passions, the film is a sensual feast of luscious colors, religious imagery and the aural artistry of crystalline sound effects and music both traditional and new.

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