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Jhini Bini Chadariya review: A moving lamentation for the holy city of Varanasi

Release Date: 01 Nov 2021 / 01hr 37min

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Sukhpreet Kahlon

Ritesh Sharma’s hard-hitting film lays bare the social fabric of the city and the growing threat from communal forces

Ritesh Sharma’s assured directorial debut, Jhini Bini Chadariya (The Brittle Thread), grapples with the churn that the ancient city of Varanasi is undergoing. Varanasi, a city in Uttar Pradesh with a vibrant syncretic tradition jostling with a tumultuous present, is depicted as being at the cusp of change and an unsettling reflection of what is going on in the rest of the country.

Rani (Megha Mathur) is a feisty dancer who performs in risqué dance shows. A single working mother, she does what she can to provide the best care for her differently abled daughter. Not one to brook any nonsense, she refuses to take on the protection of a man who wishes to control her.

On the other hand, Shahdab (Muzaffar Khan), a quiet, meek Muslim weaver who keeps his head down, goes about his work and leads an almost claustrophobic life. When a young Israeli tourist Adah (Sivan Spector) befriends him, his world opens up through this unlikely encounter.

Although they come from very different worlds, Rani and Shahdab exist on the fringes of a city eager to embrace modernity. Rani harbours notions of possessing autonomy over her body, as well as the right to choose, only to realise that it is an illusion. Traumatised irrevocably by his past, Shahdab feels a glimmer of hope in there being some way other way to live.

Woven within the film is the presence of the mystic poet Kabir. Born in Varanasi, he attacked organised religion to advocate a holistic, humanitarian and secular outlook that borrowed from Hinduism and Islam. In his poem ‘Jhini Bini Chadariya’, the human body is seen as the ‘chadariya’ or sheet of cloth and the film contemplates the threads woven into this fabric, along with the influences that start to tear it apart. 

Sharma’s film is at once a celebration of and lamentation for Varanasi. The speeches of a monolithic Hindu nation and the reclaiming of temples form the backdrop to a city being unmade and fashioned along communal lines. Layering the story of Rani and Shahdab, the palpable violence in the speeches inadvertently makes one brace for its consequences.

The mise-en-scene foregrounds the unmaking of the secular fabric of the city, as the cinematography weaves its way through the bylanes, taking us to the iconic ghats, capturing the festivities along with the silences that punctuate it.

The realistic performances by the cast bring out the predicament of the characters who are caught in a web of socio-political forces. Like ordinary people, they are just trying to eke out a living for themselves, yet they are victims of forces they are unable to contemplate. 

“Why is this normal?” asks the Israeli tourist Adah when Shahdab is picked on as a Muslim man spending time with a foreign woman. At the end of Sharma’s film, we leave asking the same question, shuddering at the bestiality of man. This is a courageous film for our times.

Sharma’s film was part of the Film Bazaar Recommends programme in 2019 and had its world premiere at the 34th Tokyo International Film Festival, where it was the only Indian feature in the Asian Futures section.

Jhini Bini Chadariya (The Brittle Thread) 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.


Related topics

Indian Film Festival of Melbourne Other Indian independent cinema

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