Vara: A Blessing: Busan Review

"Vera: A Blessing"
A slow-burning, deftly-handled drama that offers a sharp picture of a young couple's stifled yearnings.

Bhutanese monk turned moviemaker Khyentse Norbu returns to the filmmaking fraternity after a decade's hiatus with an ill-fated romance set in an Indian village.

Vara: A Blessing is transcendence in action. In all senses of the word, that is: it's a tale which sees a young woman reconfiguring her religious zeal into passion for the common man; it's a story about young bodies and minds deploying their innate talents to aspire for something apparently beyond their reach; and – perhaps more importantly – it's a film which sees its director making a surprising (and successful) shift into a paradigm far away from his own circumstances and previous aesthetics.

Drastically different in both content and tone from his previous two films -- The Cup, the 1999 story of young monks trying to tune in to live broadcasts of football matches, and Travellers and Magicians, the 2003 road movie of sorts about a smalltown Bhutanese official -- Norbu's latest film is a slow-burning account of youthful yearnings going into overdrive. Thriving on a rural, class-traversing love triangle that also factors in the three characters' desire to better themselves through art and knowledge, Vara is a passionate piece which will likely go on from its opening-film slot at Busan to outdo the festival success of his previous two films.

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Adapting Bengali writer Sunil Gangopadhyay's short story "Rakta Aar Kanna" ("Blood and Tears"), Norbu sets Vara in a modern-day Indian village in which the odd incursions of modern life -- a mobile phone here, a television set playing flashy music videos there -- remain largely overwhelmed by landscapes which have remained unchanged for a century. At the center of the film is Lila (Shahana Goswani), a young woman who dreams of emulating her mother (dance choreographer-actress Geeta Chandran) in becoming a skilled dancer, and Shyam (Devesh Ranjan), a lower-caste laborer seeking a way out of his miserable existence by becoming a sculptor -- a profession which could serve as the key to his dreams of a new life in the city.

While it would of course take two to tango, Vara's narrative fulcrum lies with Lila, as Norbu clearly lays out in the credits when he acknowledges the influence of Chalurata, Satyajit Ray's film about a lonely urban homemaker's failed attempt to refresh her life. When the film beings, her love is only for the deity Krishna -- a devotion that gradually turns into mortal intimacy with Shyam. It's when their tryst yields a physical consequence that Lila's hopes are dashed -- with her downward spiral brought to a halt by her secret-admirer Prakash (Pankaj Pawan), a shy, overweight man whose interest in books and telescopes hints at someone with more hopes in life than being Lila and Shyam's parochial landlord.

While Norbu's self-penned English-language screenplay is stilted at places, the director makes up for it with a great visual feast. William Chang -- a veteran of stifled-emotions after his collaborations with Wong Kar-wai – aids the bristling on-screen passion deftly, alongside Bradford Young's camerawork and Aradhana Seth's production design -- the greens and browns bringing out emotional states swinging from burning to barren.

And then there are the stellar performances of the two leads. Goswani and Ranjan are effective in establishing a frisson which is more substantial and stirring than the sexualized Bollywood music videos shown (and re-enacted) within the film. With his delicate treatment of this -- along with the many scenes of worldly love (and loathing) -- Norbu has proven his maturity as a filmmaker with power rather than merely prayer.

Opening Film, Busan International Film Festival
Production Companies: Moving Temple Films, in association with Evenstar Films, Hanway Films, Pyramide Films
Director: Khyentse Norbu
Cast: Shahana Goswani, Devesh Ranjan, Pankaj Pawan, Rohit Raj
Producer: Nanette Nelms
Executive Producers: Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia, Jeremy Thomas, Suresh Jindal
Screenplay: Khyentse Norbu
Cinematographer: Bradford Young
Production Designer: Aradhana Seth
Editor: William Chang Suk-ping
Music: Nitin Sawhney
Sound: Tu Duu-chih
In English
International Sales: Hanway Films
96 minutes