A tale of forbidden love between a Hindi dancer and a Muslim sculptor, “Vara: A Blessing” buries pearls of wisdom within a mundane portrait of Indian provincial life and a plot as homespun as any melodrama. Nevertheless, the ravishing visuals and an abundance of classical Indian dance and music provide a sensory tonic in this first English-language effort directed by Bhutanese lama Khyentse Norbu (“The Cup,” “Travelers and Magicians”). The Busan fest opener will find a core following among Buddhists worldwide, and those into Eastern spirituality will enjoy pondering the interconnectedness of religion, art and love as expressed here.
“Vara” reps a step up in production polish for Norbu, working with an internationally high-profile crew that includes Wong Kar Wai’s regular editor, William Chang, and top indie lenser Bradford Young (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” “Mother of George”), to name a few. Yet something has arguably been lost in the process; the Sri Lankan locations, standing in for South India, can’t quite capture the mysterious appeal of Bhutan, where “Travelers and Magicians” was the first film to be shot. Similarly, while this marks Norbu’s first time working with top Indian stage and screen thesps, bringing greater emotional heft to the writer-director’s characters, they lack the unschooled charm of the amateur actors in his first two works.
Vinata (Geeta Chandron) is her village’s last living devadasi, a woman skilled in performing arts dedicated to serving a deity, to whom she is ritually wed. Sadly, being spiritually married to Krishna the supreme being doesn’t pay the bills, and since the death of her earthly husband, she has been living a hand-to-mouth existence teaching the divine Bharata Natyam dance.
Vinata’s lovely daughter, Lila (Shahana Goswami, “Midnight’s Children”), follows in her footsteps, dedicating herself to Krishna. But whenever she performs a dance channeling Krishna’s lover Radha, she sees the blue god transmuted into the form of Shyma (Devesh Ranjan), a low-caste Muslim apprenticed to potter Khalid (Rajesh Ganessan). Not only does the strapping young man arouse new sensations in Lila, he persuades her to model for his sculpture of Saraswati, the goddess of art and knowledge — a taboo in their conservative community.
Sexual fantasy and spiritual trance collide in their clandestine trysts and Lila’s dance rituals beside a statue of Krishna in the forest. Meanwhile, tribal leader Subha (Rohit Raj), tasked by a wealthy widow with finding a suitable match for her son Prakash (Pankaj Pawan), tries to pimp out Lila. In fact, Prankash, a shy and retiring shut-in who prefers books to blind dates, has been secretly tracking Lila’s every move.
Thematically, all three of Norbu’s films are meditations on temptation, transgression and transcendence, whether it’s young monks’ soccer fandom in “The Cup,” the allure of American pop culture and a voluptuous woman in “Travelers,” or the transporting ecstasy of sex and artistic creation in “Vara.” While Buddhism teaches one to let go of one’s attachments, Norbu’s films culminate in the fulfillment rather than the renunciation of desire, even as they acknowledge desire’s ephemeral nature. The idea that the human body is a temple of divinity is invoked in an opening quotation from the writings of Indian philosopher and social reformer Bassavanna, and it’s aptly illustrated by the characters’ sensual fascination with statues of their deities.
Norbu also probes worldly matters such as class inequality and sexism through Shyam’s social immobility and the plight of the despised devadasis. However, he doesn’t provide enough background for non-Hindu viewers about either the caste system or the historical role of devadasis, who once enjoyed the patronage of kings, but who since colonial days have been so ostracized and impoverished that many resort to prostitution on the side.
The actors, most of them drawn from theater, are fine but not outstanding. Goswami lacks a strong personality here but gets by on pure physical charm, and she holds her own in the dance scenes. The handsome, beefy Ranjan looks soulfully lost in thought a bit too often and functions primarily as eye candy, especially as the blue-skinned Krishna. The upporting actors turn in more engaging perfs, especially Pawan, embodying Prakash’s repressed love with quiet intensity and a mannered courteousness that belies his diffidence.
Craft contributions are sterling. Chang sets a hypnotically cross-cutting rhythm in the fantasy and dance scenes, which, despite their technical complexity, never confuse the viewer. Young captures the lush, leafy sensuality of the Sri Lankan forest, contrasted with the stuffy, dimly lit interiors of Prakash’s mansion. The Bharata Natyam dance performances practiced by devadasis are choreographed by Geeta Chandran, a guru of the school, in a way that looks authentic but doesn’t feel like a stilted academic demonstration. Sound effects by Hou Hsiao Hsien regular Tu Duu-chih catch even the fall of raindrops with piercing clarity.