J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Portland Film Festival ’14: Blemished Light

The Indian subcontinent is a fractious, factionalized region, but the criminalization of homosexuality is an unfortunate constant. Of course, there are violent extremists who seek to further impose their strict Islamist agenda on those they deem unbelievers or apostates. In his split narrative following a closeted lesbian’s desperate attempt to find love and a Muslim terrorist stalking a moderate academic, director-co-writer Raj Amit Kumar issues a plea for tolerance and civility, but finds little of either in Blemished Light (trailer here), which had a special midnight screening at the 2014 Portland Film Festival.

Leela Singh is the apple of her senior police officer father’s eye, but she simply cannot submit to the proper marriage he has arranged for her. The doting but stern Devraj will be scandalized when he learns Singh is a lesbian, who intends to win back her former secret lover, Sakhi Taylor, a bi-sexual Indian-American artist. Taylor holds a downtown hipster image of herself, but she still cares about how she is perceived in Indian society. Their reunion will be uneasy, but for Singh the die is already cast, thanks to the video confessional she left for her father.

Meanwhile, Mohammed Husain has arrived in New York for a grim mission he whole-heartedly embraces. He has been chosen to abduct and execute Fareed Rahmani, a prominent proponent of a more liberal vision of Islam. In his frequent media appearances, Rahmani argues true Muslims do not go about killing people. Husain intends to demonstrate otherwise, but first is supposed to extract a confession of heresy.

While the two discrete storylines never intersect, they are highly compatible thematically and make it difficult to dismiss the film as mere “Islamophobia.” Clearly, Kumar and co-writer suggest prejudice based on religion, gender, and sexual orientation is an issue endemic to the region that transcends demographic categories.

Blemished also benefits from the imprimatur of the legendary Victor Banerjee (best known in the West for A Passage to India and several Satyajit Ray films), whose mastery of his craft remains unabated. As Rahmani, he fully humanizes the potential martyr figure (in an uncorrupted sense of the term), ultimately delivering a devastating punch to the viewer’s gut. In contrast, Adil Hussain’s Devraj Singh is appropriately intense and decidedly disturbing, credibly laying the groundwork for some otherwise unfathomable choices as a father. Bhavani Lee also demonstrates future star power potential and a vivid screen presence as the complicated and contradictory Taylor.

This is a film rich in telling scenes, such as the stilted interactions between Husain and his Americanized support network, many of whom seem to be trying to preserve their plausible deniability. There are issues here and there, including an underdeveloped subplot involving Singh’s pregnant platonic girlfriend and an excursion into surreal imagery that looks quite striking but clashes with the overall tone of social realism. However, the film’s visceral immediacy demands an audience.

Inspired by the verse of Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, it is a bold and bracing film, featuring an extraordinarily compelling and humanistic performance from Banerjee. Highly recommended for his fans and patrons of accessible Indian Parallel Cinema (or high-end Bollywood), Blemished Light is sure to generate controversy as well as a long life on the Indian and LGBT festival circuits following its special screening at this year’s Portland Film Festival.

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