'Dev Bhoomi' ('Land of the Gods'): Film Review | TIFF 2016

Land of the Gods Still 1  - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Land of the Gods Still 1  - Publicity - H 2016

Simple, straight-forward and affecting.

Victor Banerjee plays a man returning to his village in the Himalayas after 40 years’ absence in Goran Paskaljevic’s delicate homecoming tale.

Though it unfolds at the top of the world in the purity of India’s high Himalayas, Dev Bhoomi (Land of the Gods) is a nightmarish homecoming tale that highlights the lingering gender and caste prejudice in rural Indian culture towards women and the so-called untouchables. Serbian director Goran Paskaljevic brings his signature sensitivity to the story, telling it simply and affectingly through the eyes of a refined ex-pat played by Victor Banerjee (Passage to India), who again shows he is one of India’s most riveting actors.

It's perhaps closest to the director’s fable-like study of neighborly hatred How Harry Became a Tree (2001), which was set in rural Ireland. Though it lacks the biting urgency of his films describing the war in Yugoslavia, its stunning cinematography and vividly drawn characters could find art house fans after its bow in Toronto’s Masters.

However, the film’s structure does feel a little inert in the way the ailing protag Rahul has an observer’s role from start to finish. And he’s on the defensive the whole time, having returned to his home village after 40 years of being stubbornly incommunicado in England. His contemplative, regretful tone and decision not to intervene in village conflicts and affairs, before he makes a gesture in the last reel, tend to downplay the dramatic conflict that bubbles and seethes all around him.

Paskaljevic got his first taste of India when he spent many months presiding over film festival juries and developing this screenplay with Banerjee, who undoubtedly made the details more realistic. Still the film retains a striking freshness in its view Indian culture, like someone who is being confronted by its age-old traditions for the first time and doesn’t know whether to respond with shock or marvel.

Looking very out of place as he gets out of a taxi with his sports kit, the gentleman Rahul Negi (Banerjee) is deposited on the terraced mountains of Uttarakhand. They’re so high up they’re literally breath-taking, and Rahul looks none too fit for a hike through the Himalayas. As he eventually confesses to the kindly head of a small ashram where he is given shelter, he has come to see his native village before he goes completely blind. He throws away his cell phone in a sign of ultimate renunciation and dons a gray Gandhi cap.

But a chilly homecoming awaits. The reason why his family greets him with anger and the fervent suggestion he buzz off will only be revealed later in the story. After trailing around the tiny village looking like a lost tourist, he smooths things over with his best friend and gets invited to tea by another outsider, an idealistic new teacher (Geetanjali Thapa) whose one-room open-air classroom is the only learning facility in town. When her brightest pupil Asha (Priya Sharma) is pulled out of school to get married, tragedy looms.

Equally anguishing is the villagers’ treatment of the young dancers who come to entertain them at Asha’s wedding: they are untouchables, and Rahul has already created havoc in the past when he ignored the prohibition against socializing with them. He carries a heavy responsibility for ruining a life, which only now he seems forced to acknowledge.

Viewers looking for the spiritual dimension of the high Himalayas will find little of it in this humanistic tale. Banerjee, who has played both Jesus and Paramahansa Yogananda in the course of his distinguished career, is convincing here as an English-bred sophisticate whose perception of the sacred is probably no longer that of his compatriots. In his search for his own private peace, the ancient temple of Kedarnath, which was miraculously spared by the 2013 earthquake and flooding that killed tens of thousands, is glimpsed in long shot.

Paskaljevic’s regular D.P. Milan Spasic makes a major contribution in capturing the thrilling colors and poetry of the landscape and the people. The casual way Indian English is mixed with the local language is natural and never jarring.

Production companies: Nova Film, Zepter International, Gorvic Pictures
Cast: Victor Banerjee, Geetanjali Thapa, Uttara Baokar, Raj Zutshi, V.K. Sharma, Avijit Dutt, S.P. Mamgain, Ambar Kant, Priya Sharma, Sohaila Kapur, Shalini Sundriyal
Director: Goran Paskaljevic
Screenwriters: Goran Paskaljevic, Victor Banerjee
Producers: Goran Paskaljevic, Philip Zepter, Madeleine Zepter
Executive producers: Gobindo J. C. Roy, Jelica Rosandic
Director of photography: Milan Spasic
Production designer: Satadal Mitra
Costume designer: Neeti Jain
Editor: Kristina Pozenel
Music: Ramesh Mishra
World sales: C International Sales
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Masters)
92 minutes