IN a recent television interview, Kathak dancer-turned-screen actress Smriti Mishra likened the experience of working in Jaya Ganga, Paris-based Indian writer Vijay Singh's maiden feature film, to the ineffably soothing sensation that a lullaby arouses. It floated by like a sweet, lilting ditty while she slept like a child. When she awoke, it was morning. And the film was ready to be delivered to the post-production lab.
The Rs 4-crore Indo-French-American co-production, shot on locations in Paris, Haridwar and Varanasi, among other places in France and India, plays a bit like a mystifying, languid reverie that flits back and forth between the real and the illusory. But Smriti Mishra, a talented and ambitious Varanasi girl who ever since has acted in two much talked-about films (Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin and Sardari Begum), doesn't exactly sleepwalk through her role as Zehra, the young poetry-spouting, twinkle-toed tawaif, whom the film's hero chances upon on the banks of the Ganga. Her mature, well-modulated star turn, reminds one of Smita Patil and surely ranks among the most impressive screen debuts of recent times.
No less than the mighty river itself, Mishra is the heart and soul of the film: she is sensuous, smouldering, seductive and sad by turns as she fleshes out the many dimensions of a real, tangible, vulnerable woman seeking emancipation from her sleazy life in an upcountry brothel.
As is Vijay Singh, the film's director. Jaya Ganga, like many films of its ilk, could easily have lost its way in the confusing maze of surreal conceits and ended up being an exploitative, stereotypical rendition of the Indian 'reality'. In spite of the passages that underscore squalor, chaos and social exploitation, it doesn't. If the film, adapted from a novel by the director himself, isn't a disingenuous packaging-and-marketing-of-exotica exercise for a western audience, it is primarily because Vijay Singh is an Indo-French writer-filmmaker who feels at home with both cultures: Indian and western. "My film conveys that quite clearly," saysSingh. "That's the reason why it should be accessible to viewers both in India and the West."
Jaya Ganga, first screened in India at the 27th International Film Festival of India in New Delhi in January 1996, is being simultaneously released in Calcutta, Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore this week. Finding outlets hasn't been easy, but Singh is hoping against hope that Indian audiences will respond to the film. "The Mumbai distributor (Shyam Shroff of Shringar Films) assures me that the film will run for 25
weeks at Sterling," he says with an undisguised air of disbelief. French surrealism, Indian mysticism, wit, intensity, humour and pathos mingle freely in the lively script. The storyline, freed from time, space and movement, is about an Indian writer (Asil Rais) who lives in Paris. One night, in a cemetery, he meets a mysterious, time-travelling woman (French actress Paula Klein) who, thanks to a ring gifted by a sadhu, claims to live two lives—one as Jaya, the other as Nadja, a beautiful woman of the 1920s who inspired French surrealist Andre Breton to write a book on her. She then disappears without a trace.
The search for Jaya and, perhaps, for his own true identity, brings the obsessed Indian writer to the banks of the Ganga and he undertakes a journey down the river. His life takes a new direction and love blossoms after he encounters Zehra (Smriti Mishra). But their union—the skilfully lensed lovemaking scene is central to the film's exploration of relationships—is a celebration of tragedy, not passion, says Vijay Singh, reading from his book, Jaya Ganga: In Search of the River Goddess.
How close is the film to the book? That's a non-question, says Singh. "It didn't really matter for it was my own book that I was adapting," he says. "What is important is that when the viewer leaves the hall, the dominant sentiment should be the same as the one left with the reader when the book ends. By that yardstick, the film is a successful adaptation." He cites the way Smriti Mishra interprets the character of Zehra as an example of the freedom a filmmaker adapting his own book enjoys. "Of course, I had Zehra clearly in my mind when I opted for Smriti, but once she grasped the basic nuances of the character, I moved Zehra towards the actress, letting the former take on the latter's qualities," explains Singh.
A cinematic travelogue that goes a long way in exploring the inner spaces of an entire culture—represented by a life-enforcing river—even as it occasionally derides some of its manifestations, Jaya Ganga is a film with a soul. A soul that holds a difficult subject together.