A reflection on the syncretic tradition of Varanasi, the film premiered at the Tokyo International Film Festival in 2021.
Wanted to make the film that I feel for, says Ritesh Sharma on Jhini Bini Chadariya
New Delhi - 15 Sep 2022 9:00 IST
Ritesh Sharma’s debut feature Jhini Bini Chadariya (The Brittle Thread) is an incisive look at the socio-political churn that the country is undergoing. A reflection on the syncretic tradition that has defined the holy city of Varanasi, the film’s title is from the mystic poet Kabir’s poem that contemplates the influences that fashion the human body.
The story traces the journey of the two central protagonists, Rani (Megha Mathur), a feisty dancer who performs in risqué dance shows, and Shahdab (Muzaffar Khan), a meek Muslim weaver whose life opens up when he meets a tourist Adah (Sivan Spector). Rani and Shahdab's characters exist on the fringes of society, trying to make a living. However, larger circumstances unfold in a city on the cusp of change, which changes their lives irrevocably.
Jhini Bini Chadariya was screened at the 13th Indian Film Festival of Melbourne in August and is due to be screened at the upcoming Tasveer South Asian Film Festival (TSAFF) in November.
In an exclusive chat with Cinestaan.com, Sharma talked about the inspiration for the film and the ideas that shaped the narrative. Making a move from documentary films to a fiction feature with the film, he began writing the story in 2016.
Speaking about the story idea, he explained, “I think it’s very personal. I wanted to tell a love story. I was born in Varanasi and there is a saying [there], ‘Raand, Saand, Seedhi, Sanyasi/ Inse bacho tow seve Kashi’ [If you can save yourself from the prostitute, the bull, the steep steps of the ghats and sanyasis who will rob you blind; only then can you reach Kashi]. With this [in mind], I started writing my characters. Rani is the dancer, Shahdab is always there like the stairs, the sanyasi is Adah’s character, who does not believe in one religion and is the traveller, and there is the bull-like nature of the character Baba. So, I started writing the characters and started weaving the story.”
The changes taking place in Varanasi, in the political space, which echoed within the society in the city, are an integral part of the film. Talking about how politics became intergrated into the narrative, he said, “A lot of things were happening around me. Political things were really disturbing and those became a part of the film. I wanted to make something that I feel emotionally deep."
He continued, "I am telling a love story but I feel everything is political. With everything happening around me, I was asking the question, why? This was very painful for me. The film feels disturbing because I was getting disturbed. And I wanted to make the film that I feel for.”
Along with exploring the ways in which the religious divide is dictating the contours of the city, the film examines the dichotomy between tradition and modernity wherein Varanasi is trying to shed its historical past for a seemingly glitzy future.
“[Varanasi] is a very beautiful city," he elaborated. This Hindu-Muslim divide was never there. In front of the mandir [temple], there is a mosque. I remember that when I wanted to see golden fish, I went to the mosque and all my Muslim friends would come to the temple to get prasad. So this ganga-jamuni tehzeeb [syncretic tradition] has always been there and now this whole thing has come in with Kashi Vishwanath [corridor].
"From 1992 onwards, things started to change but while doing my research [for the film], people said that pandits wake up with the sound of the azaan [the call to prayer for Muslims]. Where else can you find such a beautiful thing? Everyone lives together but now, the traditions are being broken…The people who are doing this [creating problems] do not understand Benares,” Sharma said.
Gender is another theme that is prominent in the film and explored through the character of Rani. As a strong, spirited woman looking out for her daughter, Rani feels she has autonomy over her body and can exercise her will but her ideas are brutally dashed.
Reflecting on this, the filmmaker said, “My first film [The Holy Wives (2010)] talks about caste and the sexual exploitation of women in India. I was [at] the Shiva temple in Manikarnika ghats and women were dancing and men could just go and pour beer on them. There was no dignity for women, even though it was all being done in a temple. I started meeting these women and there is human trafficking and women do this because there is no option but their dignity [and] respect is very important and that they do not get. We talk about such big things with gender discrimination but just see the things on the ground which are happening.”
The realism in creating Rani’s character was an integral part for the filmmaker who was taken aback at some of the things that he saw going on as regular performances, “Except for one song, all songs are the ones from the performances there [in Varanasi]. I wanted it to be as real as possible. All the men screaming and reacting [in the crowd] actually did so. It’s sad that these things are happening right in front of us. We have to do something for that. Through the film, I felt that at least I could show the things that are happening,” he said.
Jhini Bini Chadariya was part of the Film Bazaar Recommends programme in 2019, though it was titled Taana Baana at the time. It had its world premiere at the 34th Tokyo International Film Festival, where it was the only Indian feature in the Asian Futures section.
Speaking about the reaction of the audience there, Sharma shared, “I was not sure how the Japanese [audience would] react to the film but I got many tweets and I had friends there who told me that after the screening, there was complete silence. People were not ready to talk. Some people were crying and they could relate to the film politically as well."
The film was screened at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) 2022, making its Indian premiere. He said, “For me, IFFK was really special because that was the first time I was watching the film with the audience. The film was house full. After the film, one guy started asking questions and asked to come and give me a hug and he was crying. Once you make a film, you wonder about how it is."
"In Kolkata, I got a standing ovation and people were talking about the film. I am happy that the film is getting this response and the film is reaching the audience. I really hope that it will be released on an OTT platform and I can show the film as it is. Till now, it’s been good,” he added.
His next film is based in Delhi and is the story of three women of different ages, belonging to different backgrounds, who have migrated from different places. They are all going through their journey and that journeys get interlinked with each other.
“Again, it’s a love story but politics becomes a part of it. I love to say it’s a love story," Sharma revealed.