“Banaras is older than History, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together,”  quoted American literary genius, Mark Twain. Banaras is among the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities of the world and archaeological evidence in the vicinity of Assi ghat suggest that it has been intact since 2000 BC. The tradition of Shaivism propounds that Kashi was founded by Lord Shiva himself and he declared the city as the giver of liberation. The other known cities which are regarded with the same reverie are Ayodhya, Mathura, Gaya, Kanchi, Avantika, and Dvaravati. In 528 BC, Gautam Buddha is believed to have delivered his first sermon, The Setting in the Motion of Wheel of Dharma, at the nearby Sarnath. And the religious heritage of Kashi continued to grow, after Adi Shankaracharya, established Shiva as the primeval deity of worship in the region in 800 AD.

Setting the Scene

Manikarnika Ghar, Banaras

Manikarnika Ghar, Banaras

Banaras, Varanasi or Kashi is the surreal land of artifice, illusion, enlightenment, and death which follows it. The cremation ghats run 24/7, burning hundred thousands of cadavers every year. The corpse bearers, the hissing noise emanating from the flaming of the wood, and the marmalade hue of the intensely lit funeral pyres, astutely expose the inevitable, that how far we all are from death and how death is rite of passage of life. It is this transparency of rituals and the desolation which arises in their wake, that immortalizes Banaras. There is a stillness and a completeness in the aura which brings people to Banaras, to pray, to penance, and to die.

The aesthetics and artifacts of life and death in the region have alluded the imagination of visitors for long. Whilst most choose to experience the oblivious in their quiet contemplation peacefully, there are others who decide to seize more than the moment itself; the painters, the poets, and the plays. The city has captured the fancy of the contemporary filmmakers of parallel cinema in India and the results are unpretentious, richly evocative narratives which find poetry in an everyday Banaras.

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Raw and Rustic

Satyajit Ray on the sets of Aparajito (1956)

Satyajit Ray on the sets of Aparajito (1956)

Banaras becomes a character in a spiritual fantasy. Films like Aparajito, Raanjhana, Masaan, and the recently released Mukti Bhawan have done a great job in preserving the grandeur of the city. The color of time presents the shades of modern day urbanization and the obscure hues of archaic heritage on a single sheet. Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito (1956) is perhaps the first Indian film to be shot in Banaras. It starts with where Pather Panchali left, with Apu’s family moving to Banaras. The film, lauded for its rich and poetic composition, is also the first to capture the majesty of the holy Ganges and the adjoining ghats in panoramic shots for celluloid, thus giving the Indian cinema a narrative outside the traditional narrow confines of a musical and something affluent in rawness.

Ochrish Hues

Bengali filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh’s Chokher Bali (2003) brings the modern feminist discourses to the screen, dealing with natural yet socially forbidden desires of a widow. The film briefly features the city of Kashi in the narrative when Aashalata distraught with her husband’s adultery takes refuge in the holy city. The film, heavily dialogue drove, has cinematic impressions of Banaras in ochrish colors.

Deepa Mehta’s Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Feature Film, Water (2005) is unique in its portrayal of Banaras. The film set in 1938 explores the lives of widows at a local ashram. It’s dark introspection of misogyny and ostracism in a rural India, with the recreation of splinters of ashes, narrow alleys, and pensive ascetics in the film, managed to match the realistic earthiness and rustic charm of Banaras, even though the film could not feature any actual shot from Banaras.

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In Character

A still from Neeraj Ghaywan's Masaan (2015)

A still from Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan (2015)

The unsophisticated settings and the unrefined ways in which rural landscapes shape the immersive experience are where the parallel cinema unfurls. Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan (2015) constructs Banaras as the central character of its sketch. The diffusing construction of Hindu rituals, interpretation, and the structure of the city, is represented throughout the presentation. Deepak and Shalu find spirit in every aspect of the city, from the cremation ghats to the holy Ganges to boat rides to the sangam. The pundits who guard the embankments, watch the entire drama with a still and protective gaze. The sacred verses are layered with poetic lyricism to give the audience new eyes to see the city.  Similarly, in Shubhashish Bhutiani’s Mukti Bhawan (2017), the caprice and charisma of visuals enrich the spirit of Banaras. The city demands its attention in the axis around which the screenplay spins. It is not the stranger-than-usual-characters but those ingrained in their deep indigenous roots which make the story compelling. The subtle ambiance which is prevalent in the film doesn’t affect the direction but generates a queerness, a curiosity. Thus, the cinematic experience is tough to articulate. The culmination of the eclectic hymns, the sound of prayers, the sway of fire, and the passage of time make Banaras a phantasmagoria.

 

In the tangerine inferno

At every dusk

Varanasi’s becomes

The most beautiful thing I’ve seen.