A couple of days ago I woke up to a quote by beloved Mexican artist and all around cool woman Frida Kahlo on Twitter -- it was her birth day: "I do not think the banks of a river suffer because they let the river flow..." It seemed significant in my life because it was the day I'd received from two wondrous filmmakers a link to their latest work, 'Searching for Saraswati' -- a NY Times Op-Docs 20-minute documentary supported by the Sundance Institute and the MacArthur Foundation on the rediscovery of the mythical Saraswati river in Northern India.
Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya first appeared on my cinematic radar two years ago, when their feature 'The Cinema Travellers' premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. When I was sent a screener of the film, I ended up watching it spellbound, for its duration, never stopping or even daring to look away. And more than two years later, the images from their masterpiece -- their first feature film, if you can believe it! -- still color my consciousness. I find myself, from time to time, yearning for that feeling of wonder I had watching it for the first time, and the second time and even a third, finally on the big screen in Dubai. Truly, 'The Cinema Travellers' is a masterpiece of sensitivity and a love song by two poets of our times to the Seventh Art.
So how would the duo ever outdo themselves, I wondered, and felt a bit of nervous apprehension as I prepared to watch 'Searching for Saraswati' -- which premieres on the 10th of July on the NY Times site. Turns out, outdoing themselves wasn't necessary, when you can instead propose a film that makes the viewer ask questions, ponder the similarities between the Western world and India, the world's largest democracy, and come up with personal answers that astound and puzzle us at once.
You can watch the film below or click on the link below it to see it on the Op-Docs website.
"The film plays out against the claim of the Haryana government, that they have discovered the mythical river Saraswati. This river has been part of all our childhood stories, and is believed to have been lost 5000 years ago! It tells the story of the village Mughalwali where the “river” has been dug up, and how blind faith and reason collide as nationalistic propaganda filters in." That's how Abraham herself set up the film for me and I couldn't have said it better.
And through mystical images, like those of children on a float dressed as the Goddess Saraswati herself, playing her symbolic Veena and a cast of characters that include an exiled farmer, a Hindu priest, a politician and a skeptical man of the land who looks like he's just walked off the set of an Anurag Kashyap film, these master documentarians tell a story at once political and nationalistic -- which these days seem to be always walking arm in arm.
All this, in tones that resemble the ease and complexity so perfectly mixed only in Sudhir Mishra films -- before 'Searching for Saraswati'.
So why is it that politicians find it so convenient to unify people only by digging trenches and building walls? Perhaps because as a human race, we've never been more divided than we are now, and only packing us in, on each side, will keep us in the pen. And adhering to the program.
Abraham makes another point: "It is a difficult political moment for India. And our film presents a critical perspective on the dangers of manipulating mythology to mislead the public for political advantage. We do want to underline the need for rational, critical thinking in a democracy -- but then, where we’re at, are we allowed to even say this anymore? We wonder."
The India of Narendra Modi has made people see things through saffron colored lenses and there is little place there for a different viewpoint, or an alternate sense of spirituality in this 21st Century Desh.
How the film will be received, and perceived in India remains to be seen. But what is certain is that 'Searching for Saraswati' once again broke through the superficial crust of an issue for me, to find the deeper sense of life at the heart of the matter. And while for now the river Saraswati remains nothing more than a shallow well, the filmmaking that resulted from this story is a break in the dam of the status quo, at that moment when the flood doors begin to open.