May 14, 2015
Vara: A Blessing – Bhutan, 2013
Khyentse Norbu’s Vara: A Blessing is one of those films that could easily have become something we’ve seen a thousand times on the silver screen. It could effortlessly have become a tragedy about a woman forced to flee persecution, and at times it is just one misstep away from turning its heroine into the kind of female character that western audiences used to Hollywood tales of empowerment have seen countless times. That it avoids both of these pitfalls could be seen as a minor miracle, yet I believe it does so because to do otherwise would be utterly false to the characters and the situations that they find themselves in.
The film’s lead character is a spunky young woman named Lila (Shihana Goswami), and for the first half of the film, she exhibits such an energetic love of life that she could easily be confused for a character in a Disney film. There are even scenes of her dancing by herself in the middle of a rather lush forest, and like Disney’s heroines, she talks aloud as if the forest were alive with talking animals and trees filled with guardian spirits. The big difference of course is that Lila believes she is talking to the Hindu supreme god, Krishna, and the playfulness that fills her enthusiastic words reminded me of the way a young woman might speak the first time she falls in love. This may seem strange to some, but in a culture that frowns upon contact between young people of the opposite sex and pretty much prohibits dating in one’s youth, perhaps it is only natural for a young woman to behave this way when she is finally alone and unconfined by cultural restrictions. At one point, she even speaks of dedicating herself to Krishna only to be reminded by her mother that prospective husbands don’t often propose to the wives of gods.
The film is set, though not filmed, in the Indian countryside, in a land with little in the way of life’s modern conveniences. It is an area where making a living is hard and where one’s best efforts often yield just enough to get by. One of the things I found most interesting about the film is the way it details the three classes that can exist in places like this. First, there’s the upper class make up of landowners. Their life seems to be quite easy. Below them in rank are those people fortunate enough to find employment with the upper class or those in official positions. At the bottom is everyone else, and those viewed as being higher than them believe it is their right to treat the lower castes however they see fit. Numerous times we see them commit acts that in any other place would likely put them in jail or at the very least earn them a stern reprimand or fine. Here, though, a member of the two upper classes has no qualms with beating a complete stranger for not being able to walk straight while carrying a heavy load on his shoulders or for bathing in the only lake for miles.
The first half of the film is primarily about Lila’s friendship with the apprentice of a local sculpture named Shyma (Devesh Ranjan), and I was moved by how much this characters is the opposite of Lila. This is a young man who has every right to be angry - vengeful even, yet he holds onto the slimmest of hopes that with one act he can change his fate. That act involves using Lila as a model for sculptures of the goddess of art and knowledge, Saraswati, an act that is strictly forbidden in their community. The resulting sculptures he hopes to sell in the city, a place that he talks about not returning from once he gets there. Lila is initially reluctant to pose for him, but his promises of secrecy and her youthful rebelliousness convince her otherwise. Perhaps she even hopes to be part of the reason for his happiness and freedom. At the same time, the local landlord also takes an interest in Lila, and his character fluctuates between decent and socially awkward to such as degree as to make viewers slightly apprehensive about him.
Given this set up, it is only natural to think the film is going along the path of so many other films involving love triangles. In fact, I half expected the film to be about Lila’s choice of one of these two men over the other. Instead, however, the film ratchets up the danger for all of the characters involved. At one point, Lila and the landlord sit next to each other, he with an arm around her, she with her head leaning slightly against his chest, and all I could think was how much was wrong with the scene. It was a moment in which love is faked out of need and the other gets but a pittance of appreciation and is content to make do with that for life. Such are the things people do when love is unrequited yet too powerful to walk away from.
As I watched the film, I was also struck by how much empathy I had for all of the characters in it. In a way, they are all trapped by a social system that has the power to strip away more than a little of their humanity. The rich seem to have lost the ability to empathize, those in their employment have sacrificed their connection to those around them in an attempt at self-preservation, and the poor have long ago stopped believing that they control their destiny. And yet here is also a tale in which an opening appears, and as horrible as the circumstances are, there is a chance for a better life for a few of the film’s characters. I’m not sure true happiness will necessarily come as a result of it, but it is better than the alternative.
In the end, Vara: A Blessing is a movie about contradictions and desperation. Lila is a free spirit in a world in which it is dangerous to be one, Shyma is a dreamer in a world that discourages them, and the Landlord (Pankaj Pawan) is a decent man struggling to remain decent in a world that offers him opportunities denied to so many others. Even the film’s chief villain is a character that deserves at least some pity, for his actions reveal a man who has lost every bit of the moral compass that he once had. In one scene, we see him imply the absolute worst of Lila, yet this is a man who loves his own daughter so much that he is crushed by his inability to continue to send her to school. His character demonstrates just how far people will go to keep their position in life even when doing so robs them of their humanity.
The film does not avoid every cliché, but it utilizes those that it relies on to great effect. I consistently found myself in awe whenever the film veered in unexpected directions, and the film’s conclusion is an exercise in cinematic realism. Rarely has so much been accomplished by words whispered in someone’s ear, yet out of earshot of the audience. I have no doubt that some viewers will question the pace of the first half of the film, yet I believe its slow-goings are intentional. It lulls viewers into a sense of false confidence. This is not a land of make-believe and easily obtained happy endings. Here, people need help; in short, they require a blessing, and Norbu’s film provides just that. (on DVD in Region 3)
3 and a half stars