The sanctimonious snake will listen but not hear. It slithers and circles its prey with poetic posturing. In The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs, written and directed by Pushpendra Singh, a group of herders and a horny station officer vastly underestimate the mental fortitude of a beautiful bride. The men create narratives within their respective tribes, tales that only make sense if everybody falls in line. Inspired by the work of Indian writer Vijaydan Detha and Kashmiri mystic Lalleshwari, The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs creates an aural experience through the power of suggestion.
Singh’s fourth film takes place in the mountain region of Jammu and Kashmir. When a herder named Tanvir (Sadakkit Bijran) proves his strength by lifting a massive stone, he earns the right to marry the beautiful Laila (Navjot Randhawa). The Gujjar-Bakarwal tribe migrates back home, where the local police officers observe the group’s new addition. Just minutes after a radio report references the Article 35A protests in Kashmir Valley — legislation that defines “permanent residents” — Laila pushes back when asked to prove her identity. She makes a strong first impression with both her beauty and demeanor, with Singh underlining the self-righteous ways of a station officer named Mushtaq (Shahnawaz Bhat), who tells a colleague that “Lord… the fun is in dousing such fire and enjoying the calmness that follows.”
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The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs creates a sense of unease through Ranabir Das’ cinematography and a score by composers Naren Chandavarkar and Benedict Taylor. Static shots capture Laila’s daily activities; slow pans mute the noise of the macro to examine the micro. Structurally, Singh divides the 96-minute film into seven sections that organically inform viewers about the protagonist’s frame of mind with chapter headings — such as “Song of Regret,” “Song of Playfulness,” “Song of Attraction,” etc. — and transitional music that complement each thematic concept. By the third section, a stylized wool-cutting scene suggests that The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs isn’t the typical “slow burn” festival film.
Singh provides only a few close-ups of Laila in The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs. Men drool over the woman, but the audience never receives a good look at the bride until the latter half of the film. Singh frames Laila from behind during interior shots, allowing for painterly profile stills. During intimate scenes between husband and wife, the director utilizes chiaroscuro lighting to accentuate the mysterious aspects of the female lead. She’s present during sexual encounters and yet so far away. When the camera points to the sky, the audience can empathize with Laila’s desire to escape. Mushtaq wants her to “roam like a tigress… absolutely free,” his dialogue coming across as the self-serving musings of an opportunistic man. Singh focuses intently on Laila’s movements and words in The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs — how daily routines evolve into power moves, how promises are weaponized against a morally-questionable man. Act by act, chapter by chapter, the real Laila emerges; a breathtaking viewing experience.
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A sequence in “Song of Realization” encapsulates everything that’s so beautiful about The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs. Viewers receive a closer look at Laila, but she remains elusive through the lighting and staging. The writer-director incorporates little artistic touches, such as a glimmer of light that appears on the bride’s face and then disappears. Singh understands the power of suggestion and how a simple turn of the head can communicate what a character might struggle to articulate. There’s sexuality and suspense without any music, and yet sound becomes so crucial by the end of the scene. It’s filmmaking at its finest, a painting come to life.
The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs released digitally on March 15, 2022 via Deaf Crocodile Films, Gratitude Films and Grasshopper Films.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.