'The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs' ('Laila aur satt geet'): Film Review | Berlin 2020

Courtesy of the Berlin Film Festival
A resonant, haunting story about Kashmir.

A mystical Kashmiri woman is taken as a bride in Pushpendra Singh’s stirring adaptation of an Indian folk tale.

A small but splendid Indian tale inspired by poems written by Lalleshwari, a 14th century woman mystic from Kashmir, as well as a Rajasthan folk story, Pushpendra Singh’s The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs (Laila aur satt geet) takes the viewer deep into the heart of northwest India, where a young nomadic bride plays with her desires and toys with the lust of a young ranger. The spectacular Himalayas become the backdrop to a woman’s self-determination in a magical ending that leaves the viewer thinking. The film bowed in the Berlin International Film Festival’s new Encounters sidebar and will follow in the New Directors/New Films program in New York.

Shot in Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian region contested by Pakistan and under heavy surveillance by the army and the police, the story has both the ancient feel of a folk tale and a whiff of contemporary danger. The nomadic herdsmen who drive hundreds of sure-footed goats across steep mountain paths are no longer as free as before, having to contend with customs officers and even passport control, as the government now makes migrating tribes show identity papers.

It is on one of these migrations away from home that lanky young herdsman Tanvir (Sadakkit Bijran) lays eyes on Laila (Navjot Randhawa) and asks for her hand in marriage. The formalities are compressed into a few shots of the youth having to lift a huge rock on his back to show his worthiness, after which Laila brushes him off half-heartedly. They are soon on the road with his tribe as husband and wife.

That there is something special about Laila, apart from her beauty that everyone remarks on, is obvious from the start. She seeks wisdom in Lalleshwari, who ultimately renounced family life and went to study spirituality with her guru. We can sense that orientation in Laila’s own attitude toward life, which is one of awareness, almost detachment.

In Tanvir’s home village, she is presented to the tribe in a coy ceremony and sets to work tending his home and his animals. Meanwhile, the local forest ranger Mushtaq (Shahnawaz Bhat), a red-bearded youth with a humorous face, has noticed the new arrival. So has the chief police inspector in their small mountain outpost. Both decide to conquer her, an aspiration that is shown to be within the realm of possibility, if Mushtaq’s flirtatious banter with the other village women is any indication. There is also the fact that Laila is still testing Tanvir’s manhood — whether he is capable of "defending her with a stick." On the pretense of softening her up for his boss, Mushtaq sneaks up on her when she’s alone washing clothes at the stream.

No fear of a depressing Indian rape story here: The first time the inspector tries to make a pass, Laila jumps on top of him and punches him. The two men retreat in confusion, but don’t give up. The tone is more playful than dramatic, and director Singh, who also wrote the screenplay, takes his cue from the repetitive structure of folk and fairy tales. Each time Mushtaq importunes Laila, she daringly makes a rendezvous with him that evening, when everyone asleep. Cleverly, she brings Tanvir along. Her husband’s repeated misinterpretation of what friend Mushtaq is up to would be humorous, were it not for Laila’s hidden scorn of both men and the slow change in her own desires.

The story has an allegorical dimension that equates Laila’s pride and strength to Kashmir, which is shown to be exploited by the Indian government and the separatists alike. In the final mysterious scene, she literally embodies the land’s vulnerability and pain, but also its fearlessness.

On his fourth festival film, including his Berlin Forum debut The Honor Keeper, which was also rooted in Rajasthani culture, Singh shows a confident hand as he works with the material on multiple levels of narrative and symbolism, keeping it interesting and in focus throughout. His greatest strength, however, is Randhawa’s powerful portrayal of the shepherdess, a role that could launch a career.

The story is divided into seven traditional “songs” whose topics range from marriage and migration to regret and playfulness. Some truly beautiful music composed by Naren Chandavarkar and Benedict Taylor illuminates the film, including a love song sung by Randhawa in her clear voice.

Production companies: Saarthi Entertainment, Crawling Angel Pictures, ASR Films, Marudhar Arts
Cast: Navjot Randhawa, Sadakkit Bijran, Shahnawaz Bhat, Ranjit Khajuria, Mohammed Yasin
Director-screenwriter-executive producer: Pushpendra Singh
Producers: Gulab Singh Tanwar, Sanjay Gulati, Ajit Singh Rathore, Pushpendra Singh
Director of photography: Ranabir Das
Production designer: Yogesh Kumar Langayan
Costume designer: Jasmine Kaur
Editor: Samarth Dixit
Music: Naren Chandavarkar, Benedict Taylor
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Encounters)

96 minutes