Movie Review: A Soulful Folk Parable from Kashmir — “The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs”

Writer-director Pushpendra Singh’s “The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs” has a lyrical, folk parable simplicity that instantly summons up memories of India’s greatest filmmaker, Satyajit Ray.

Singh’s poetic film tells us the story of a Kashmiri woman’s marriage into “another camp,” and the tests she faces as she and others sing us through the “seven songs” of her early married life.

We meet Laila (Navjot Randhawa) as she’s about to be “abducted” by a suitor, an ancient tradition among her nomadic sheep, buffalo and goat-herding people. A “lift this rock, win my daughter” contest has proven Tanvir’s (Sadakkit Bijran) worthiness, at least to the old men who make these decisions in such tribes. But Laila is a great beauty and we sense she’s not too keen on these naive shepherd’s interest.

Still, “fulfilling our custom” is paramount, and we hear the women sing the “Song of Marriage” as they braid Laila’s hair and dress her for the ceremony. This is in the summer pastures where Tanvir’s camp/family grazes, on a high Kashmiri plateau. “Song of Migration” is what Laila and we hear as they all, newlyweds included, lead their herds down from the mountains and into the valley below.

It’s not until this moment, some minutes into the film, that we see road signs as they cross a highway, hear radio reports of changes in rules and regulations and protests in this disputed corner of the Subcontinent and figure out that this seemingly-timeless life and tale is set in the present day.

If Tanvir and the others want to finish their animal drive, they need permits. They earn a pass from the guard they encounter. But we notice that he (Shahnawaz Bhat) has noticed Laila. If we don’t sense trouble, she soon does. And as Mushtaq takes an interest in her, stalks her and talks her up to his boss (Ranjit Khajuria) one can’t help but wonder if the feigned “abduction” earlier, quaint as it seems, hints that something more sinister, perhaps related to “rape culture,” is on the horizon.

Singh, an actor turned director, quickly shows us that Laila’s somewhat submissive acceptance of her fate when it came to marriage is nothing like the more defiant Muslim woman she is after the move. When her two harassers have the effrontery to show up as she’s trying to get her cows to mate, cracking wise with livestock inuendo, she gives them the slaps and kicks they so richly deserve.

Mushtaq proceeds to try and woo her, allegedly on his boss’s behalf. But Laila takes up the “Song of Playfulness” as she hears out his “I want you to roam like a tigress, absolutely free” proposal. As we say in the West, it’s “game on” — with Mushtaq popping by all the time and her coy replies suggesting either her reciprocated interest or some eagerness to trick him and perhaps punish him.

Each night’s “come to the banana field,” “the old mill” or “the sheep enclosure” has the whiff of a trap about it. What’s she up to?

Singh lets us see officialdom’s view of these Gujjar Bakawals people, with uniformed men debating how much trouble they’ll take from the folks so slow to accept “new ways” of doing things. Mushtaq speaks with disdain of the “cow protectors” (Indian Hindus) that these Muslim migrants must pass through.

The writer-director shows us Laila’s life — chores, livestock management, sex — as well as the interior life of a woman trapped in a patriarchy and either bored enough to tease the guard, or furious enough to want him harmed.

“Why am I playing this dangerous game?” she muses, as songs and seasons pass and the stakes seem to rise.

Singh relies on metaphors — a burning tree, the goat Laila sees in Tanvir’s place when she’s considering his offer of marriage — the details of everyday life, and the striking scenery of what is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful places on Earth to lift Laila’s story from melodramatic parable into something of higher ambition.

And for the most part, he succeeds. “The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs” becomes a rare look into lives we never see on film and their struggles in a place we never see on film — sunny, scenic and hotly contested Kashmir.

Rating: Unrated, with sexual situations, nudity

Cast: Navjot Randhawa, Sadakkit Bijran, Shahnawaz Bhat and Ranjit Khajuria.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Pushpendra Singh. A Deaf Crocodile release.

Running time: 1:36

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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