Since the silent era, the life of the Rajasthani mystic-poet Meerabai has been brought to the big screen by several Indian filmmakers, most notably Debaki Bose (1933), Ellis R. Dungan (1947) and Gulzar (1979). They cast Durga Khote, M.S. Subbulakshmi and Hema Malini respectively in the role of the historical/literary figure whose work and lore has survived in India’s cultural landscape for more than four centuries.
Kolkata-based filmmaker Anirban Dutta’s sophomore feature-length cinematic work, Anubhuti, which premiered at the 2024 International Film Festival Rotterdam on Tuesday, situates Meerabai in a triangle of love involving the venerated Lord Krishna and his mythic cowherdess-beloved Radha. The film adopts a singular approach to the mapping of a poet’s soul in an otherworldly zone.
The Hindi-language film is nothing like any of the previous dramatic iterations of the Meerabai story. It views her solely through the prism of her devotion-soaked poetry – compositions that are an integral part of the literature of medieval Hinduism’s Bhakti movement and are sung and recited to this day.
The film uses visual means to capture Meera’s outpourings expressing her transcendental love for Lord Krishna. Anubhuti is a bewitching, if at times challenging, oddity marked by performative grace and musical range.
It is a highly stylised, abstract performance piece that consumers of conventional cinema might find befuddling. But instead of undermining the film’s ability to communicate its essence to a discerning, patient viewer, the studied non-linear opaqueness lends firmness to the construct.
Anubhuti collates many of Meera’s most celebrated bhajans and renders them in various Hindustani classical ragas that reflect the different states of mind of the Mewar princess-turned-saint. Desire and anticipation, hope and disappointment, ecstasy and envy, faith and melancholy – an array of impulses and moods find expression in the poems and songs.
Through lyric, music, dance and a repertoire of mudras (gestures) and restrained abhinaya (acting), the film guides attentive viewers into a consciousness that turns increasingly receptive as the exercise unfolds at a deliberate pace and with a gentle rhythm.
Anubhuti is a series of theatrical vignettes that offer glimpses into the depth of Meera’s immeasurable love for Lord Krishna and into her belief that she is Radha personified in the real world and in a different era. Worldly passion and ethereal adoration become one as Radha and Meera become companions in a dreamscape filled with the colours of longing.
The mythic and the historical intertwine as bodies, hands, fingers and daintily dancing feet articulate a spectrum of feelings, both porous and impermeable. Radha is an exalted yet rooted figure from mythology; Meerabai is a mortal woman of historical provenance who renounced her royal comforts and family ties and ventured forth in quest of divinity.
The two women from across time-zones and domains of consciousness are bound by what they love and ceaselessly yearn for – spontaneous reciprocation from Krishna, who, on his part, subtly breaks out of the realms of godliness and conveys emotions that appear describable in purely human terms.
Meera looks for her reflection in Radha. Radha is troubled by envy and occasional frustration at Lord Krishna’s wavering attention. The tangible and the sensual mingle in ways that are not always fully graspable. They do not depend on verbal articulation. The sustained unfathomability only increases the range of the cinematic experience that the film provides.
Inspired in part by the depiction of Krishna and Radha’s love in Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda, Anubhuti falls back intermittently on Kangra and Pahadi miniatures as a means to illuminate the Radha-Meera relationship vis-a-vis their worshipful fervour. It is perceived in the light of how unswerving devotion plays out and merges with the kind of ineffable and elevating passion that often remains unrequited because the ways of the divine do not submit to the demands of the temporal.
Dutta’s dialogue-less storytelling delineates love and ardour cutting through the haze of time, haptic dimensions and the human-divine divide. His actors – Aritraa Sengupta (Meera), Rittick Bhattacharya (Krishna) and Shamila Bhattacharya (Radha) – are like putty in his hands. They surrender totally to the director’s will both as receptacles of complex concepts and conveyors of emotive pointers.
Dutta gave us ample demonstration of his uncompromising filmmaking style in his first feature, Jahnabi (2018). The film about a woman dreaming of and pining for an absent lover used largely non-verbal means. It drew a parallel between the centrality of rivers and women in human civilisation as objects of love, reverence, exploitation and deprivation.
Anubhuti, like Jahnabi, is rooted in devices that spring from the palette of a visual artist who strives to see beyond the mundane in his search for the sublime. The film is also is imbued with the spirit of a photographer who carefully contemplates every frame and its meaning.
Dutta, who has self-produced this hyper-independent film, has also done the costumes and art direction. He utilises the movie camera (handled by Soham Dey) and audio recording devices to fill the frames with physical movement, hand and eye expressions, carefully chosen backdrops, voices that recite (Srijan Chatterjee) and sing (the film’s music composer Vaishali Sinha and Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty) and instrumental pieces that heighten the inscrutability of passion anchored in spirituality.
Amid the film’s rich array of sounds, the pronunciation of a word or two is less than perfect. The stray lapses stick out because they disrupt the sonic harmony that the film otherwise sustains all through its 90-odd minutes. But the hitches are neither so many or so glaring as to irretrievably mar the film.
Anubhuti is a labour of love whose steadfast commitment to an unalloyed method of image-making is worthy of applause. It is the kind of cinema that is possible only when a filmmaker is able to liberate himself from the lure of mass approbation.
Aritraa Sengupta, Rittick Bhattacharya and Shamila Bhattacharya