Raised in a sheltered village, young Lila yearns for a life devoted to Hindu worship, like thatofher devadasi mother,but shebeginstoencounterworldly
obstacles to her spiritual fulfillment when
she agrees to model for a lowly village boy
who hopes to become a sculptor.
Shahana Goswami, Lila in Vara: The
Blessing, says that her training in Odissi
helped her prepare for her role and choreographer Geeta Chandran, who also plays
her teacher in the film, had little difficulty
in honing her skills.
Geeta, you have never acted in a film
before. What was this experience like? You
must have been in front of the camera
Geeta: Only as a dancer, not as an actor. It
was very different, because on stage you
can instantly tell if something worked or
not. The applause can tell you all. But here
you wait for two years. Yesterday I saw it
(the film) for the first time. I couldn’t go to
Busan, Goa and Kerala when the film
showed there. Yesterday’s screening went
off very well.
Did you like yourself as a performer?
Geeta: It’s very hard to say.
Were you satisfied with your perform-
Geeta: Actually, I didn’t perform at all. I
And what was it like working with profes-
I didn’t think it would work out like this.
Because we shot almost five hours of
footage. So we didn’t know how much of
dance the film would retain.
sional actors like Shahana?
Geeta: Oh, Shahana was absolutely fantastic. She was more like my student.
Shahana, you are trained in Odissi. Did
you get any Bharata Natyam training for
Shahana: I had to learn properly. It is
deceptively similar. But the two styles are
very different. So I had to train to unlearn
my body’s reflexes that are very Odissi.
Geeta set me up with a teacher in
Mumbai to learn the basic styles. Later I
came to Delhi when she had choreographed all the pieces for the film. We kept
polishing and brushing.
Geeta: It was very interesting to choreograph for a film, to apply yourself to the
sequences and work out the compositions.
Shahana: Geeta was editing while composing. I remember her saying Ek minute
sey lamba nahin rakhenge!
But that’s how choreographer Farah
Khan choreographs for Bollywood films as
Geeta: I just spoke to Farah and lots of
Where did you find the other dancers in
what she does is the same for classical
dance as well. She’s very intelligent and
practical as a filmmaker so she knows
which angle will look good for the dancer or
Geeta: They were my students from
Delhi. Rinpoche (director Khyentse Norbu)
was very clear that he wanted authentic
Shahana, this is your second film in Sri
Lanka (Midnight’s Children was also shot
Shahana: In one year I spent six months
there. Next I will stand for presidentship
there (she laughs). It was a nice crew. We
felt like we were on a family trip, where
there was an itinerary as well.
You have done big Bollywood films like
Ra.One and Rock On, while also small
indie films like Firaaq. Can you compare
the experiences with an international production like Vara?
Shahana: The difference I see in an international setup is that there is a sense of
equality between everyone on board. I find
that easy. There is so much hierarchy in the
Indian film industry, which I find very
repressive, because it restricts your interactions with people in a real manner. And it
impedes their productivity.
This film is in English as was Midnight’s
Children. How does it feel like acting in
English as opposed to Hindi?
Shahana: Strangely enough, both these
films have a different English tone and
grammar. In Midnight’s Children it was
an era specific thing, a lot of old school
I have to say English flows much more
easier for me, not that I am uncomfortable
in Hindi. I recently shot a film in Bengali
and it was fine.
And I just did Paul Cox’s film (Force of
Destiny) in Australia.
You had posted that on Facebook. What is
Shahana: It is based on his life. He had
cancer and was told he had six months to
live and he ended up getting a liver transplant.
Where was it shot?
Shahana: Mostly in Australia, with
sequences in Kerala. Actors Seema Biswas
and Mohan Agashe play small roles as my
aunt and uncle in the film.
So what attracted you both to Vara?
Shahana: It was the man who made the
film. We both had the same reaction. It
sounded so pseudo — a Buddhist monk
making a film on dance. I auditioned with
Uma Da Cunha and then I was interacting
with our producer Nanette Nelms.
I kept wondering what I was doing.
Finally when I was in Sri Lanka I was told
the director was there. And literally the
moment I met him I knew I had to do this
film, only because it gave me access to be
around him and view the film through his
So what does it mean to have a Buddhist
lama as a director? Does he yell at all?
Geeta: No, he’s always smiling. He’s not
that difficult, but he is also very mischievous, very fun loving. Not at all like what a
lama would be. He is very sensitive and
Shahana: You know he lost his father just
before the shoot, while we were rehearsing.
Geeta: And he just took a day off and he
came back. He was extremely committed to
Shahana: We shot in hard conditions. It
was hot, yet he kept everyone very upbeat
Geeta: It was an unconventional group of
people coming together. Rinpoche followed
me for two years to do the project. The
script was worked out and two, three drafts
were done at my home. And I told him if
you give me a non-dancer to train then I
am out (she laughs). So Shahana was a perfect choice.
Do you know how this film will be received
in India when it opens there?
Shahana: It’s hard to find a distributor
for a film like this. This is a film where you
call like-minded people and screen it for
In Goa I did tell some of the cast that now
that we are in India people may walk out or
may find it problematic. Although the audience really appreciated it.
Why did you think Indians would find the
Geeta: It’s not set anywhere. There is
Bharata Natyam dance and then you hear
about Kali Puja. That is how Rinpoche
wanted the film to be. He didn’t want to
place it in any geography. And it bothered
me initially. But then I saw it yesterday and
I realized it is an eternal story. n
Actor Shahana Goswami and dancer Geeta Chandran tell
Aseem Chhabra how they bonded over shared interests
people come together
Shahana Goswami and Geeta Chandran. ASEEM CHHABRA
India Abroad May 2, 2014
THE MAGAZINE M11