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Janani's Juliet review: Sharp documentary that explores love, caste and Shakespeare through the Indian lens

Release Date: 10 Jul 2020 / 53min


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Shriram Iyengar

Pankaj Rishi Kumar's documentary peeks behind the process of Koumarane Valavane's play to provide a new perspective to love across the caste divide.

Pankaj Rishi Kumar could not have picked a more ideal romantic female protagonist than Juliet to set in comparison to his heroine, Janani. The Shakespearean heroine was the ideal muse, willing to die for a love that was born in an instant and defined an entire emotion. Where Juliet ends her life with Romeo to find immortality, Pankaj Rishi Kumar's documentary questions whether love ends with the death of the lover or goes beyond.

The film follows playwright Koumarane Valavane as he prepares for the play, Chandala, Impure. The play is an adaptation of Shakespeare's classic, with all the layers of caste complexity from India thrown in. As the troupe journeys farther into the play, its members reveal their own questions, inadequacies and, perhaps, a new awareness of the complexity of the evil of caste.

At one point in the documentary, Valavane says, "Never forget, a story has its own dynamics." In Janani's Juliet, the dynamics emerge from the questions the troupe and the director pose to their characters. Why is Janani, an upper-caste woman from Vaishnava Nagar, in love with Jack, a lower-caste young man from Ambedkar Nagar? What are her opinions about love? How does she feel about it? Would she die for it?

"You tell me," says Valavane. "You are Janani." The answer, unsurprisingly, comes through the very emotional meetings on the phone and in person with Kausalya. In 2016, Kausalya's husband, Shankar, a Dalit man, was murdered in public by men hired by her own father to protect 'their honour'. The interview with Kausalya holds a key place in the documentary.

It is the reference point for the artistes, as well as the audience, to truly understand the sweeping and destructive impact of caste on love. Where the play does not take sides, the documentary focuses on Janani and Gowsalya. As the latter explains during one of her conversations, the honour of the father depends on the woman. It is she who is denied the freedom to express, to celebrate, to sing, dance and, of course, love. The last is punishable by death.

In addition to the heavy subtext, the play is filled with symbolism, art and culture. From the 'parai' music to the poems capturing Janani's feelings to the bohemian style of the stage, there is something captivating about the process.

Towards the end, Koumarane Valavane tells Kausalya, "I did not know how to end my play. That's why I came to meet you." It is here that the meaning of the title truly comes forth. Strong as love is, it takes courage to live on in the face of the odds against it. Janani's battle is not to find love but to live on for the sake of love. As the artistes in the troupe explain, one may not always be willing to die for love. But one has to live for it.

Janani's Juliet was screened at the PSBT Open Frame Film Festival at the India International Centre in New Delhi on 22 September 2019.

Related topics

Open Frame Film Festival

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