Berlinale 2020: “Maybe a singular mountain is a feeling,” an interview with Pushpendra Singh

by MLP

As the festival came to a close, and my viewing-energy dwindled, my dear friend Anuj wrote me one evening to ask if I would be interested in watching an Indian film in the morning, and to interview the director afterwards. One month earlier, I had felt a similar call from the ether; after meeting a couple of guys from India in the lobby of our hostel at IFFR, they convinced us to come with them to see an Indian film from the Tamil region called Nasir. I was stunned by the fragility of that film, and the clear amount of care that had gone into its construction. Nasir was unquestionably the best title I saw in Rotterdam this year. After such an experience, my answer to Anuj was an emphatic and near-instant ‘yes’. I have seen so few films from India in my lifetime, and this year is apparently my chance to rectify that mistake.

The next morning I saw Laila aur satt geet – in English it’s called The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs – in a sparsely attended press screening. After the screening I met with its director, Pushpendra Singh. We shook hands and exchanged a few words before a German critic came up to expound his love for the film, its colors, its beauty. It was oddly validating to hear my own thoughts effectively confirmed out loud by a stranger (albeit fellow critic). The critic mentioned what a shame it was to see the press screening projected for such a small audience, that this is a film which really must be seen on the biggest screen possible. He was absolutely right.

Mr. Singh mentioned the film had been shot in a 6K resolution, and lamented that people so often ask for screeners rather than coming to the screenings. I myself am of course guilty of asking for screeners, out of an urge to want to see so many works. There are, quite simply, too many films at a festival like Berlinale. It is impossible to see them all, and for someone such as myself who prefers not to walk out if I can help it, it can really feel once in a while that certain titles are an absolute waste of precious time. Screeners alleviate this anxiety of potential waste to some small degree, but at the cost of missing out on the experience of submitting ourselves to the film. Thankfully, I saw The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs on a large screen, and I highly recommend that you do the same if at all possible – and at risk of sounding like a PR agent, that goes for Nasir as well. (A statement which was obviously well before quarantine became the new normal… for now just watch the film whenever the opportunity presents itself.)

The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs is a slow-moving vessel of brilliant colors, rich meditations on nature and beautiful singing – yes, the songs of its title are literal and used as chapter dividers both heard and labeled via onscreen text. As a viewer obsessed with how a film presents itself visually, it’s rare that I walk away from a first viewing with a deep understanding of the narrative, so here I will resort to the press kit to give an idea of the story:

“Inspired by the poetry of 14th century Kashmiri mystic Lalleshwari, also known as Lalla or Lal Ded, and set against the backdrop of the conflict in Kashmir, comes this timeless story of the nomadic shepherdess Laila. Although she becomes Tanvir’s wife, she attracts the attentions of the entire tribe, and especially of gendarme Mushtaq, who is determined to conquer her. Amidst the magnificent Himalayan landscape, where the police and military strictly monitor every movement and all borders, the pair exchanges amorous repartee that spins out of control. Stalking and seduction, mockery and temptation – director Singh takes inspiration from the folkloric model, right down to the narrative structure.”

The “spinning out of control”, it should be noted, happens in a farcical manner, rather than the suggested intensity of serious drama. I shared with Mr. Singh my admiration of the final shot, which is simply breathtaking: the glaze of a slow sunrise spreading across the snow-capped peaks of a colossal mountain range. Absolute silence as the closing credits begin to appear. I opened our discussion by mentioning that while so many of the film’s cultural subtleties were lost on me, its obvious beauty is unmissable.

MLP: So much of the film’s pleasures are universal, like the singing. The color: I can’t express how nice it is to see not just to see such color but so many colors, all together, in still a stylistically restrained film, especially in this festival context. How did the film start? It’s based on folklore?

PS: Yes, there’s this writer called Vijaydan Detha, who has written some 800 stories he’s collected from mostly women and old people in villages, and then he was a Marxist. He re-interpreted those folktales and then wrote them, and in Rajasthani, rather than in the dominant language of Hindi. It’s spoken in parts of Rajasthan. So I was fascinated by his short stories. My debut feature was also based on one of his short stories, and the story was set among this caste called Gujjars in Rajasthan, which I also belong to. I was very fascinated by the folk tale, especially because he was a Marxist and feminist; he wrote it from the point of view of women.

What time period was he writing in?

He started in the ‘60s. Most of his folk tales are written in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s or so. But this was I think written in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, I’m not too sure.

This was the second time you were adapting from his work?

Yeah, this is like a pure adaptation. The first one was closer to the short story itself. But this I’ve adapted, and I’ve set it in Jammu and Kashmir instead of Rajasthan. The Gujjars and Bakarwals, with whom I’ve set the film, are very close tribes. So they migrated a long time ago from – we say reverse migration at that point – Rajasthan to the North. They’re found in Pakistan as well, and then some parts of Afghanistan, but earlier there were no borders, so they could travel freely. Then this whole idea of nation states came into being and then they also got divided.

In the earlier folktale, there was a feudal lord, and one of his agents starts exploiting the women. The feudal lord is then enamored by a beautiful woman and he tries to exploit her. In the contemporary world we don’t have that kind of feudalism anymore, especially in the states, but then, especially in a state like Jammu and Kashmir; the security state is like the feudal lord. And then these people stay in the forest. So the forest guard becomes this immediate and direct security contact. And he reports to the higher security forces. I found that similarity and thought it better to adapt it to contemporary times.

I love this cut from the dog who is just starting to growl, to the report that it had bitten someone. I thought this was a really unorthodox but great example of this ‘rule’ in screenwriting to ‘show, don’t tell’, because you show and tell. It works so nicely together. It’s unusual.

This is Brechtian. You know how Brecht does; he talks about archetypes. Not stereotypes but archetypes. Nowadays with archetypes they can go the stereotypical way. How do you find a creative way to show that? So I don’t want to show the police officer or the forest guard to be cruel outright, as larger-than-life characters who are imposing themselves, so with my editor we discussed and decided to bring in these elements from nature that can reflect this idea of archetype, and if we cut from there to them, then maybe it will work.

Is that how you had this idea for shots of nature as punctuation?

Exactly.

Can you talk a little bit about the burning trees?

Actually, when we were shooting in the forest, we saw that someone would come and they would burn them. Then while going from the shooting and doing the research, when I was there, we would see the trees burnt and then one day they would fall down. Someone would come and break them. People would say it’s the forest officials who do it, and then they sell it, but they’re not allowed to do that. Then it became a metaphor of this whole burning state, ‘Kashmir is burning.’ And then elementally, fire as an element. So it was saying many things. Just one shot could say many things.

It’s a beautiful image. I was thinking of the slow-motion, which I think you only used twice: once with the sheep wool and then once when she’s walking towards him in this maybe hallucination and then he fades. How did you decide in those two particular moments to use slow-motion?

You know, because cinema is a medium of time: it’s a temporal medium. Sometimes we feel that time slows down. So I wanted that feeling of the slowing down of time. When time slows down, there are some feelings which become accentuated. So it was just to get that feeling out.


The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs (2020), © Pushpendra Singh

There were many moments where I felt that it was on the verge of being in slow motion, like when she is petting a bull. I had to really focus to tell that it wasn’t in slow motion… “The sun also shines on the punished,” does this line also come from somewhere else? Is that from the text?

It comes from the folktale, yes.

Before this interview we talked a little bit about technical details of the camera. How important is technical information for you as a director? I’ve been thinking a lot this festival about the separation of tasks [in the filmmaking process] and how this sometimes leads to separation of thinking as well, about the film itself. For example, I feel that in cases where the color ends up so desaturated in some films, it has something to do with the director being disconnected from the task of the coloring. Just as one example, were you closely involved while the color work was being done?

Yes.

And how important is it for you overall to need to be technically informed or involved?

Because I come from a film school, maybe it’s inherent in us that you visualize the film in a certain way. In India there is this tradition of ‘Rasa’, which literally means ‘juice.’ When someone views something, a juice is produced inside him. It’s a very beautiful idea. Catharsis is very different, which comes from this Greek word, but we have this Rasa tradition where they talk about nine kinds of Rasas – nine different kinds of feelings that are evoked in an audience when they see it. And then there is a dominant Rasa in every work of art. It’s not necessary that all nine Rasas should be evoked, but maybe someone can play with just one rasa. Then this whole idea to evoke that: you use certain colors, ideas, performances with the actors, and then the body, dance, music – everything is correlated just to produce that juice.

Were you trying to produce one specific Rasa in this case?

You know there are correlated Rasas but I wanted this whole idea of the mystic; to get that sense. That’s why [I included] the last shot.

Can you talk a little bit about this last shot? Was it planned from the beginning?

No it wasn’t planned from the beginning, but then we had this last shot where she’s walking and then this final shot where we see the figure. But we felt that somehow it was standard – something was standard, the journey wasn’t complete. Because I bring nature [in] a lot, I cut voice-overs over nature, we thought it would be best to bring [in] nature again. She’s always looking at snow and snow-capped mountains, which represent this whole idea of Kashmir, which comes from the past. So we thought maybe a singular mountain is a feeling.

And the sunrise?

Again, this element of light. I wanted to end it on a positive note. It gives that feeling.

Do you feel like talking at all about your influences?

I think as an artist, subconsciously everything gets accumulated and then you never know where it comes out. I’ve grown up on films by Bresson, Ozu, Tarkovsky, Parajanov – you know, a lot of masters. These immediately come to mind. But there’s another Spanish film master whom I like very much: Victor Erice. I love The Spirit of the Beehive. My second film was a tribute to that film.


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Maximilien Luc Proctor (+MLP+) is a French-American filmmaker/musician/writer with a special interest in the avant-garde. He is a contributing editor for Photogénie, founder of Ultra Dogme, and social media manager for Fracto Experimental Film Encounter.

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