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Kumar Shahani’s Var Var Vari: From signal to sign by Devdutt Trivedi





Cinema transforms the relationship between camera and object, to that of the relationship between the subject and the Self. Through progressive transformations, the medium of cinema moves from ethics through the life force to a state beyond death. Through representation, the cinema captures a liminal space i.e. a space outside the confines of time.


Kumar Shahani’s 1987 short film Var Var Vari, produced by the Film and Television Institute of India begins with a shot of a caged bird. The black swan represents the escape from the Self (line of flight) that is captured within the essentialist nature of black and white footage. The heroine (Nayika) of the film, played by Mita Vashisht talks directly back into the camera thus breaking the fourth wall and capturing a Whole that cannot be contained. Vashishth plays Shahani’s subconscious feminine psyche (Carl Jung pronounces this concept anima). However, unlike Jung, she is not an archetype, but an everyday character caught up in the machine-dominated sphere (mechanosphere) of computers and transmitters that represent the pauperisation of technology.


Whereas the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni speaks of an inadequate code of ethics that is out of touch with the developments in technology, Shahani speaks of a naturalism that forms a liminal space that makes technology itself inadequate. Instead of showing us narrative chunks of film with close-ups as inserts (known as mise en scene), Shahani constructs image, sound, actor and camera movement as one continuous assemblage (known as decoupage).


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_JSKN0sjbhw&authuser=0


Vasishth plays the Vasakasajja Nayika, one of the eight kinds of Nayikas or heroines, listed by Bharata in his eponymous work The Natyashastra. Vasakasajja is a Nayika who is decked up in ornate jewellery and clothes, in anticipation of the return of her lover from a long journey. Instead of meeting her lover she meets the nomad guru who invokes the notes of the raga Gaud Malhar thus suggesting rain. Rain engulfs the rivers, a symbol of the feminine, whereas the wind and the saree suspended in it, invoke the materiality of the feminine reduced to a sensorial collapse (pratyahara). Jewellery is the vital force or elan vitale, that creates breath (prana) through ornamentation.


Mita Vashisht as the actor (or should we call her the ‘model’ as per Bresson’s vocabulary?) constructed an imaginary structure in which the black swan is the Nayika’s lover. She becomes one with gesture, playing herself and beco

ming-other i.e. the Nayika. Vashisth points out how her main approach was to internalise the character as an (internal) image. This image was precisely the psyche of the director i.e. his aesthetic and world-view to bring about a newness to every gesture in the construct. The key skill for the actor then, was to bring this psychic interiority, through newness into a corporeal presence that materialised itself in the body of the actor i.e. Vashishth.


The Nayika interacts with the Sakhi, or friend who insists on transforming the electronic signals into a sign to attract her lover. This transformation of gesture into signification moves into the domain of language such that the everyday banal heroine opens out her hair and frees herself of ornamentation. This opening of the hair signals the destructive force of feminine energy or Shakti (represented by the heroine), making the character return to the archetype. In this way the film creates a mechanism by which the everyday can return to the mythical epic.

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