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A stark black and white film about an odd little family living high in the Himalayas, this "first everything" effort (except for having a star who'd been in dozens of films) is more memorable for its exotic, contrasty images than its somewhat detached portrait of marginal people.
Shivajee Chandrabhushan is a mountaineer. He actually chose to shoot this, his first film, in the rugged Indian region of Ladakh in the wintertime. Black and white was another choice to emphasize the relentlessness of the place and the difficulty of life for poor old Karma (Danny Denzongpa), whose karma doesn't seem too good. His only talent is for making apricot jam, in small quantities, on a hand-cranked machine which it strains his arms and back to work. When he takes this year's production to local customers he's too late and they've stocked up on manufactured commercial products. He's soon in deep financial trouble because a nasty moneylender, who leers at his pretty daughter Lasya (Gauri), is demanding a large payment. Lasya is a bit wild and crazy and has been kicked out of school. She mostly hangs out with her little brother Chomo (Angchuk), and they spar and chase each other around in a spirited manner that belies the harsh conditions of their life in the wind-torn old shack Karma regards as his ancestral home.
Lasya almost seems autistic. When she and Karma travel around the area, which includes a visit to a fair where there are clowns, Chandrabhushan is closer to the world of Fellini's La Strada than to either Bollywood or Apu.
Another threatening element in the environment is a military unit that moves into the surrounding area. The ranking officer gives Karma some sort of satellite phone system to use in case of trouble, and then later wants to requisition his house and relocate him. Eventually there will be no one left but Lasya, though at first this seems Chomo's tale, if only because of the presence of his voice-over narration. After various meanderings, there appears a young man with earrings called Romeo (Shakeel Khan), almost like a gypsy, who says he's in love with Lasya and madly chases her around.
This is a world of the imagination, however intense its seeming physicality, and the whole narrative shows a weak grasp of the actual that may be natural to high altitudes: everyone's a little light headed. What remains after the film ends are not events, not even specific images however rich these are in local color, but an impression of intense contrastiness and graininess, scatterings of dark rocks in big patches of snow. It's like an acid trip vision of some of the greatest work of twentieth-century black and white still photography, Edward Weston and Lee Friedlander collaged by Fellini.
Danny Denzongpa had played in over 150 films; all the rest were beginners, including the filmmakers. Chandrabhushan certainly shows great determination and independence of vision. But like his heroine Lasya, he seems a little erratic and emotionally remote.
Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival 2008.
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