In a rural Indian village, two young people from engage in a forbidden romance.

Beauty alone can't save awkward actors.

BUSAN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: It was clear that in selecting this year’s opening night film, that the organisers of the Busan International Film Festival were mindful of their self-imposed brief of being the 'hub of Asian Cinema" (not just the 'hub of Korean Cinema") and their tradition of nurturing long-term relationships with the region’s filmmakers. Accordingly, Busan kicked off with the Indian-set, English-language film, Vara: A Blessing, directed by Bhutanese monk Khytense Norbu, whose debut film The Cup played the festival in 1999.

the dialogue is obvious and overly expository

This story of lust, manipulation and divine romance is set in a rural India of an indistinct but semi-contemporary time period (Shaad Ali’s Bunty Aur Babli from 2005 plays on television) where telecommunications and feudalism co-exist. The primary focus is on Lila (Shahana Goswami), a peasant woman who not only loves the Indian god Krishna, but could also be described to be in love with Krishna. Lila communes with her god/lover via her study of dance and her sultry figure sparks the attention of a strapping labourer, Shyam (Devesh Ranjan), who has ambitions to be a sculptor. Like Lila, Shyam seeks the divine in his art but his (mutual) attraction to Lila gets him caught in the romantic crossfire of class struggle, as the owner of the property on which Shyam works also has eyes for the beautiful dancer.

Norbu’s first English-language film (previous ventures have been in Hindi, Tibetan and Dzongka) has some charms, but has more obvious flaws than his previous efforts. Appropriately for a film that seeks to explore a woman’s passion and sexuality, the film’s casting stresses the physical beauty that ignites desire. But the physicality of Goswami’s beauty and dancing and Ranjan’s embodiment of pure masculinity is not enough to satisfy the film’s dramatic ambitions. Or to put it another way: she’s a dancer, he’s a male model, and neither of them are really actors.

If Vara was purely a visual experience their evident lack of facility with dialogue wouldn’t be an issue. But despite some poetic moments (raindrops on the river are particularly pleasing), much of the drama is communicated in dialogue. Almost every time the actors speak, their limitations become apparent. Walter Houston once said that a movie actor’s role is to make bad dialogue sound good and none of the actors in this film pass that test. The actors are further hampered by the fact that they are also acting in a second language.

It could be argued that having a dancer and a sculptor as his leads would naturally direct Norbu to place an emphasis on the character’s hands than their faces. Goswami is often granted some luxurious close-ups, but more frequently Norbu goes to great effort to stage shots so that gesturing hands are prominently placed as the screen’s centre of interest to reveal the character’s unspoken emotional state or even contradict their verbal declarations. While there is a thematic justification for this emphasis, there also seems to be a more pragmatic logic operating. In a possible strategy to work around the acting limitations of his romantic leads, Norbu not only emphasises their hands but also frequently shoots them from behind or with their mouths obscured. This would have allowed the re-recording of much of the dialogue in post-production. While audiences may not register such directing choices consciously, the strategy unconsciously excludes from the drama and creates a sense of unease. Cate Shortland used a similar strategy more successfully and for completely different reasons in Lore, but in Vara it’s no escape from the flatness of the dialogue readings.

The other half of Houston’s aforementioned aphorism is also significant as the dialogue is obvious and overly expository. Even Geoffrey Rush or Cate Blanchett couldn’t succeed with this dialogue. Every time a character speaks it feels like a plot point or thematic concern is being ticked off a list. As I’m not familiar with Sunil Gangopadhyay’s writings, it’s difficult to pinpoint whether the problem stems from the source material or whether it surfaced during the story’s translation into English or emerged as Norbu created his script. Regardless, well before the cameras started rolling someone should have given the monk a tap on the shoulder and told him that his raw materials were not going to cohere into a successful film.

Further reinforcing the overexplicit dialogue is the fact that even though the English-language dialogue is clear enough, the film also has English subtitles. This rather negates the choice not to film in an Indian language (say the native Bengali of the source material) in the first place.

The one true blessing of Vara is in its visual choices. For reasons that are initially puzzling, the director has cinematographer Bradford Young work in a palate of blurred blues, greens and greys. However, when Lila has the first of her richly colourful and transcendent visions of Krishna, the film is catapulted into a vibrant spiritual world and Norbu’s reason for making his realism so his murky is immediately apparent.

Unfortunately, while the contrast is striking and joyful, this CGI-enhanced imagery never fully compensates for the flatness that dominates most of the film. These minute-long pockets of joy remain isolated epiphanies and are lost amongst the film’s overwhelming handicaps.