Written by: Hannah Tran | March 15th, 2022
The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs (Pushpendra Singh, 2020) 2½ out of 4 stars.
The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs may look like the fairy tale that its title hints at, but this story about a young Indian woman who marries into a nomadic herding tribe is far from it. Director Pushpendra Singh (Pearl of the Desert) deconstructs the genre in this feminist tale defined by the loneliness of its central character, Laila, among the men who surround her. With the disputed territories of Jammu and Kashmir as its backdrop, this film explores Laila’s struggle as she is both harassed and coveted by local officials and her new husband. And despite a somewhat underwhelming progression of this initial idea, The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs is a noble effort that stuns tonally and visually from beginning to end.
Inspired by the work of Rajasthani writer Vidaydan Detha and 14th-century Indian folklore, The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs transports you directly into its fable-esque world. The clash between antiquity and modernity is ever-present. Although much of the conflict deals with traditional gender roles, current political and social tensions pervade its interior. This disparity is gorgeously rendered within the lush forests and bright colors that look like a painting brought to life. Moreover, the music, both in terms of the score and the songs that characterize each section of the film, further establishes the distinct tone of the story.
It’s natural to get swept away by the cinematography, but it is frustratingly difficult to penetrate the picturesque exterior to truly connect to the characters within the frame. Although strikingly deliberate, the complete absence of close-ups alienates the viewer. There seems to be a battle between the universal feminist metaphor, the dedication to folk conventions, and the interest in its characters. The film is unable to find a balance between these approaches which leaves it feeling impersonal. When it clearly pursues any particular focus, it loses forward momentum. Because of this, the film is best when it is less specific in terms of its narrative and freer with its emotion.
However, the central performance by Navjot Randhawa as Laila is consistently intriguing. While she isn’t given the development the film desperately needs, her presence is playful, clever, and endearing. While the shallow narrative itself lets this character down, its premise and approach are at least interesting. And although it may not fully capture the emotional experience of a woman in Laila’s place, it does capture the beauty of the landscapes and empathy for the people within them.