'Pushkar Puran': Film Review | Mumbai 2017

The exotic city of Pushkar is transformed into a place of myth and legend in Kamal Swaroop’s documentary about ancient Indian culture.

The ancient city of Pushkar lies in the middle of the Rajasthan plains and deserts. Not a travelogue but an engaging philosophical meditation, Kamal Swaroop’s Pushkar Puran revisits its sacred stories and myths in a unique documentary that is at once atmospheric, gripping and communicative. Confirming Swaroop’s cult status as a wide-ranging director who thinks outside the box, it should earn him new festival fans after its unveiling in Montreal and Mumbai.

Swaroop has made an art house reputation in India around a handful of unique films, from his 1988 avant-garde montage of images Om Dar B Dar, which was charged with incomprehensibility at the time it was made but recently got re-released, to his promptly censored 2013 documentary Dance for Democracy – The Battle of Banaras about the virulent elections in Varanasi which saw P.M. Narendra Modi pitted against Arvind Kejriwal (the film has still not been approved for domestic release.)

Pushkar Puran takes off in an entirely different direction. Any reader of Italian author Roberto Calasso and his dense book of stories Ka, whose poetic meditation on the mind and gods of India is quoted throughout the film, will instantly get it, while other non-Indians are likely to feel excluded. Excerpts from the literary text are practically the only spoken words in this minimal-dialogue film. The images do the talking in a seemingly absurd mix of the profound and the profane which is India.

The people of Pushkar swap tall tales that pass as legends, showing how integrated Hinduism is in their everyday lives and how the ancient world is perfectly alive for them today. This is where Calasso comes in, with his thesis that gods are ideas imagined by humans, and his insistence on the relationship between the actual and the virtual, which the film seems to illustrate.

Some of these ancient rituals are lost in the mists of time. They can be shocking; so baffling they seem to verge on the obscene, like the story of the horse sacrifice and the queen’s role in the ritual. There is an equally enigmatic story of Brahma, the creator god, and how his fifth head was cut off. One imagines that these stories give even Hindus pause as they search for their hidden meanings.

It’s the kind of film that can best by enjoyed by sitting back and just enjoying the atmosphere. Shot by cinematographers Ashok Meena and Kumar Avyaya, the images are always resonant, particularly the many night shots under a full moon. Offscreen, a priest rattles on about salvation while an exorcist pours water over a possessed woman. A male hijira in a sari amusingly explains how there is one male monkey for fifty females and their sex lives.

Stillness alternates with movement in an organic way for most of the film. The rhythm only flags in a long section set during the annual Pushkar Camel Fair, where cows are also bought and sold. The film loses some of its poetic momentum during the noisy chaos of the mela festivities and its colorful but more familiar sights of local women in colorful dresses carrying pots on their heads, while others dance in folk costumes under the eyes of armies of tourists.

The suggestion of cultural contamination is present not just in revisiting the reworked Indian myths of a Western writer, but as notably in a haunting saxophone rendition of Swan Lake and a mysteriously brooding soundtrack with discordant bell ringing that quotes Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico!

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