Laila Aur Satt Geet Movie Review: Pushpendra Singh’s Kashmir-Set Folktale, Which Had Its World Premiere At Berlinale, Is Gorgeously Moody Poetry

Laila herself may be a stand-in for Kashmir. Look how people keep talking about her beauty. Isn't that what Jahangir implied in the most famous lines about the state!
Laila Aur Satt Geet Movie Review: Pushpendra Singh’s Kashmir-Set Folktale, Which Had Its World Premiere At Berlinale, Is Gorgeously Moody Poetry

Director: Pushpendra Singh
Cast: Navjot Randhawa, Ranjit Khajuria, Shahnawaz Bhat, Sadakkit Bijran

Titles don't get much more instructive than that of Pushpendra Singh's Laila Aur Satt Geet (aka The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs), which is based on a story by Vijaydan Detha. The protagonist — Laila (Navjot Randhawa) is a beautiful Kashmiri shepherdess from the Bakarwal community, and the film tracks her trajectory in seven parts, each marked by  song. The first one is Song of Marriage. Laila weds Tanvir (Sadakkit Bijran). The second one is Song of Migration. With goats and sheep, Laila migrates to Tanvir's village. Some may recall Gulzar's Satrangi Re, from Dil Se, which covered the seven stages of love in the Sufi tradition. If that was a song, this is a symphonic poem, narrated with the powerful simplicity of a folktale.

So here's the folktale, which plays out like a rustic version of the Padmavati legend. As Laila settles into life in her new home, word of her beauty travels far and wide. The local Station Officer (Ranjit Khajuria) covets her, and he enlists a cop from the village, Mushtaq (Shahnawaz Bhat), to help him get to her. But soon, Mushtaq begins to covet her, too. Laila is tough. She resists their advances, and when they continue, she actually beats them up. But slowly, she finds herself attracted to Mushtaq. She keeps asking him to come to various places at night, so they can meet in secret, but she keeps getting cold feet — and these intentionally repetitive scenes play out like a bawdy farce.

But this is no comedy. At first, the political situation is overtly referenced — say, when the nomadic shepherds are stopped by the border police and asked to show their permits, or, later in a police station confrontation, when they are asked to get themselves Aadhar cards. But very quickly, the political layers get subsumed in the folktale, in the sense that Laila herself may be a stand-in for Kashmir. It's an echo of what Jahangir implied in the most famous lines uttered about the state: "Gar firdaus, ruhe zamin ast, hamin asto, hamin asto, hamin ast"! (If there is ever a heaven on earth, it's here, it's here, it's here.) People keep talking about Laila's external beauty, ignoring what might be happening inside her. 

At this point, we should talk about Ranabir Das' masterly cinematography, whose light and colours are breathtaking (but in a non-ostentatious manner, befitting folklore). One of the shots shows sunrise in the mountains, and you may find yourself torn between the beauty on display and the tragedy that precedes it. This is land at its purest, without a trace of mankind. Mushtaq tells Laila, "Sherni ki tarah jangal mein ghoomo, bilkul azaad!" (You are a tigress. Roam about freely in the jungle.) But this tigress is shackled by her "marriage" — her "union", if you will — to a well-meaning but ineffectual bloke. When Tanvir hears that Laila beat up the Station Officer, all he says is that she should behave herself because they are powerful people who can get them branded as militants and killed. I don't know when the film was shot, but watching it now, Tanvir speaks as though he knows Article 370 and Article 35(A) have been revoked.

How, then, does Laila deal with her increasing frustration? In the only way and the only place she can: in bed. In the early days of marriage, Tanvir climbs on top of her, empties himself and retreats to his bed. (Yes, they have separate beds, which points, again to their uneasy "union".) But as Laila gets drawn to Mushtaq — she wants him, yet she realises that it's dangerous to act on this impulse — she becomes what Mushtaq wanted her to be: a tigress, at least in bed. She surprises the staid Tanvir by straddling him and with sex moves he is not prepared for. The director uses Navjot Randhawa's physicality beautifully. She isn't asked to "emote", but behind the blank exterior we see a woman (or a state, if you want to read Laila that way) who yearns to be free.

She wants to be free of everything, including her clothes, which she wishes to shed like the snake whose skin she finds and drapes around her, like a scarf. She wants to shed her skin, too. She wants to move on. The film references Lal Ded, the Kashmiri mystic-poetess from the fourteenth-century. We are told she abandoned everything to attain God. We sense her in Laila, who gazes wistfully at the distant mountains. Meanwhile, a stark (and utterly gorgeous) image shows a hollowed-out tree that burns from the inside, as though its womb were on fire. There are films that are "poetic", and then there's Laila Aur Satt Geet, which is pure poetry.

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