Weaving a new tale of Varanasi
Filmmaker Ritesh Sharma’s debut feature explores the spiritual city beyond its holy motifs
There’s an under-represented aspect of the holy city of Varanasi that filmmaker Ritesh Sharma wants to show his viewers. And that has earned him an international audience too. His debut feature film Jhini Bini Chadariya premiered at the 34th Tokyo International Film Festival, held this month, and Sharma can’t stop raving about the appreciation that has come his way.
“I am very happy with the response of the Tokyo audience. The theatre was almost full on a Monday morning. The audience shared their comments on Twitter with some saying they saw a ‘bare India’ in the film, while others liked the ‘stunningly beautiful’ ghats of Varanasi,” says Goa-based Sharma. The film Jhini Bini Chadariya (The Brittle Thread in English) was part of the Asian Future section at the festival. Set in Varanasi, it examines the lives of the ancient city’s street dancers and handloom weavers, who are pushed to the fringes of society today from their traditional role.
Steeped in realism, the movie pits its central characters—street dancer Rani and weaver Shahdab—into two parallel worlds, one not connected to the other. Jhini Bini Chadariya is inspired by a poem of the same title by Kabir Das in which the 15th-century mystic poet likens the body to a brittle thread. A filmmaker from Uttar Pradesh, Sharma is now making a new documentary on the journey of Guri Osan, a Delhi-based photographer, who is revisiting Ladakh after 25 years to explore change—in environment and photography.
“In a way, we are all interwoven. One thread alone can’t make the whole sari. All our actions bring consequences, sometimes upon people whose existence we are not aware of,” explains the director about constructing a story about two unrelated protagonists. Rani fights the social stigma surrounding her profession to provide for her deaf daughter while Shahdab—who lost his parents in the 1992 Babri Masjid riots in the city—begins an unlikely friendship with an Israeli traveller. Shunning close-ups, the film constructs an endearing portrait of people by taking the camera through the city’s narrow bylanes, stairways and ghats.
Borrowing from Kabir’s comparison of the body with a fragile thread, the film echoes the poet’s concerns for humanity. “The body is also the city, the country and the world. Anything happening to one religion will also affect the others,” says Sharma, whose approach to filmmaking is born of his desire to effect changes in the socio-political fabric of the society. “The film is my interpretation of Varanasi, a great city that gives me a different kind of energy I have never felt in any other place.” Sharma maintains that the people of Varanasi don’t talk about their weavers and dancers anymore. He would know. His father worked with the railways in the city when he was in school. “The handloom weavers are threatened by modernisation. The street dancers face exploitation. We want to convert Varanasi into a ‘smart city’. But its history lies in ruins.”
Jhini Bini Chadariya weaves a narrative of Varanasi beyond its current status as a major pilgrimage centre. “Varanasi is a holy city. People come here from around the world. But there are a lot of things about the city beyond its temples and mosques. It is a place where thumri started, it is the city of Kabir and Ustad Bismillah Khan,” he says. The 97-minute film in Hindi, English and Hebrew was shot in the same places the director wandered as a child, like the Vishwanath Street, Thatheri Bazaar, Shivala Ghat and the Lallapura weavers’ colony.