Despite the Gods: A documentary chronicling the experiences of making Hisss

‘Making-of-a-film’ is always my favorite section in a DVD. It teaches more than any film school can. But there is a prerequisite to that. This section needs to be made with honesty and not as another marketing tool.

Jennifer Lynch – daughter of well-known filmmaker David Lynch – embarked on an ambitious filmmaking project with Hisss (2010). This film about a shape-shifting snake woman (Nagin), starred Bollywood actors like Mallika Sherawat (as the nagin) and Irrfan Khan. Right at the outset it seemed like a risky prospect. Indian audiences had outgrown such concepts in films and it was highly unlikely that the international audience would like such a film either. A look at films with an Indian connection that have worked internationally – Pather Panchali, Salaam Bombay, Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake, etc – clearly indicates that concepts that are rooted in India but equally relevant or rather identifiable by people all across the world works better. The concept of Hisss was definitely not in that category. And it was a debacle.

Despite the Gods

But more than the film itself the experience and misadventures of making the film interested first-time director Penny Vozniak. She was brought in to shoot portions of the DVD extras section. Instead this Australian filmmaker presents us with a no-holds barred look at the behind-the-scenes happenings during the filming of Hisss. Jennifer Lynch might have failed with her direction, but in Despite the Gods – the documentary about Hisss – she is the undoubted star. It is immediately apparent that Jennifer has great screen-presence. A recovering addict, Jennifer has a wry sense of humor and is straight-talking to a fault. She does not shrug from making self-deprecating quips either.

The shooting of Hiss stretched to eight months and by the end Jennifer was at her wits end. To compound her problems she had to contend with her pre-teen daughter, Sydney, during the filming duration. Jennifer faced a number of obstacles including strikes and artistic differences. One of the more bizarre problems she faced was sudden rainstorms that stalled shooting for considerable durations of time. Jennifer also opens up about doubts slowly creeping in that she might not actually be able to complete the film. Also, she wonders if this will be her last filmmaking venture or not. Vozniak’s camera captures India in its various shades at locations like Chennai, Mumbai and Kerala, where the film was shot. But ultimately Jennifer Lynch is the reason you should watch this documentary.

Its strength is also its only weakness. The only complaint you might have about Despite the Gods is that focuses a little too much on Lynch and not so much on the reasons behind the derailment of this truly ambitious project. Why didn’t the film work? What attracted Lynch to this subject? Did she fully understand what a ‘nagin’ connotes in India? These and more questions remain unanswered. It would have added another dimension to the film and made that much more engaging.

Ironically, Despite the Gods must have been watched by more people than the film it is about, Hisss (if you discount the constant re-runs on television). It was initially screened at various film festivals across Australia, where Vozniak hails from. It then went on to have a successful run at international festivals as well.

Despite the God will be screened at the 49th Chicago International Film Festival on October 17th, at 8:30pm. Sadly, no news of the documentary being screened in India yet.

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