Vara: A Blessing
Directed by Khyentse Norbu
Produced by Nanette Nelms
Released October 3, 2013
96 minutes

The color photograph in my hand is an image of Lila, my friend’s 10-year-old daughter. It shows her—despite having a severe spinal disorder—learning how to surf. I was there when this photograph was taken, but still, seeing her in the water when she is frequently in a wheelchair makes me feel a momentary panic, a drowning that is inside me and out. This panic shifts instantly as she quicksilvers in the water, buoyant and irresistibly aglow with delight. It’s as if I were holding the photograph of a dream, a dream in which Lila’s body and its constraints may suggest danger or joy, yet somehow in the innate delight of her play these become mere suggestions rather than unalterable facts.

Lila is also a central concept in both the nondualist and the dualist schools of Indian philosophy, and this quicksilvering play of my friend’s daughter suggests to me some of the subtlety of a term that is multilayered and nearly impossible to translate from Sanskrit into English. To dramatically simplify matters, it may indicate the sense of life as a cosmic joke or improvisatory drama, with the implication that one may engage life like an actor on the stage—deeply involved but with a conscious freedom from outcome.

Such an atmosphere of divine play suffuses the film Vara: A Blessing, especially through the unpredictable exploits of its protagonist, the Krishna-loving daughter of a temple dancer (devadasi) whose name is also Lila (Shahana Goswami). The director and writer Khyentse Norbu is drawing here on the traditional dramas of Krishna’s life (ras lilas), which are intended to lure viewers deep into the vibe of Krishna’s lightheartedly erotic yet worshipful state of mind. In a recent interview with Bhutan’s daily English-language news siteKuensel Online, Khyentse Norbu describes his approach to filmmaking in similar terms: “I wanted to get out of my usual zone and experiment,” he says. “But devotion is one element that has not escaped, and I don’t know why.”

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