Vara: A Blessing
Directed by Khyentse Norbu
Produced by Nanette Nelms
Released October 3, 2013
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.”
Khyentse Norbu, the Tibetan Buddhist lama who apprenticed in filmmaking with Bernardo Bertolucci (director and writer of the 1993 Little Buddha), is known for his two previous films, The Cup (1999), which won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, and Travelers and Magicians (2003), an official selection at the Venice Film Festival. He sets his third film, Vara: A Blessing, in a small Indian village (filmed in Sri Lanka) where people believe not in each other but in the arbitrary distinctions of religion and caste. Early in the film, for example, we see a man trying to communicate with his attackers as he is beaten, his heavy load of sticks scattered, all for wearing shoes that are forbidden to his caste. Is there another form of communication, the film asks us, that might circumvent such oppressive rules?
In his story of the dancer Lila, Khyentse Norbu shows her first in the forest, flirting with a statue of Krishna, kissing his painted blue lips, and later showing off to him some of her new Bollywood dance moves. The film’s cinematography suffuses the viewing experience with outsized shadows and luscious jewel tones, a common trope in Indian film that here suggests an allegorical world where the Indian gods effortlessly connect with Lila’s earthly endeavors.
Again and again, the film lingers on the breathtaking complexity of classical Bharatnatyam dance, which Lila is learning from her mother. In what would seem like an impossible maneuver, this dance, as the central metaphor of the film, weaves together moods and emotions that are seemingly at odds—discipline and transgressive disarray, devotional surrender and a sly, amorous gaze. In one superbly acted sequence, Goswami’s expressive eye and hand gestures flicker between such contrapuntal emotions, at once suggesting effortless concentration and casual command. Like Krishna, however, Lila’s innocent flirtations have an edge, and her life story veers unexpectedly when her landlord Prakesh (Pankaj Pawan) is drawn into her spell. As Prakesh becomes increasingly attracted to Lila, we see her begin to wonder about her chances of negotiating a marriage into the aristocracy. Meanwhile, a low-caste Muslim boy named Shyam (Devesh Ranjan) wants to learn how to sculpt Hindu statues, hoping to become famous and thereby escape the arbitrary oppression we see in his unhappy village life.
The subplot of Lila and Shyam’s romance, adapted from a short story by the writer Sunil Gangopadhyay, is highlighted by the naturalistic acting in the film and runs parallel with Lila’s seductive maneuvers with Prakesh. Shyam asks her to model for his statue of the goddess Sarasvati, and as he learns the shape of Lila’s body, she begins to envision him as Krishna in a high-energy stylized sequence in which the luminous blue god drifts his fingertips through water. Devotional play thus serves the purpose not only of furthering the plot but also of showing us how impossible it can be to remain one and the same person. By the end of the film, Lila’s mischievous impulses to disobey caste and religious codes have consequences, both for herself and for her transgressive relationship with Shyam. We are led to believe that by lila Norbu is referring not to play as we know it in its superficial expression of fun, but to that fragile, fluctuating center that leads to the rejection of usual limitations. “I cannot be arrogant and say that my films have profound messages of the Buddha,” says Rinpoche in a 2013 interview with The Times of India. “But there might be unintentional messages,” he adds—a bit mischievously.
The god Krishna is said to draw his devotees into a state of consciousness through which one may experience the world itself in its true form as divine play, a play of illusions that has real consequences. What happens if a Buddhist teacher plays at becoming a filmmaker? Could a Muslim boy become a sculptor of Hindu statues? Could a temple dancer wed an aristocrat? Vara: A Blessing teases us with the problem of these seemingly impossible questions, which come from fixed categories of sociopolitical consciousness. What is at stake here, for Khyentse Norbu and for us, is the extent to which filmmaking can offer a reorientation of consciousness, not only for the individual but on a collective level as well. In what ways might our perceptions themselves, through radical experimentation, become sites of social and personal evolution? Just play with me, Lila would say, with her quicksilvering smile.
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