Credit: Film at Lincoln Center
by Mattie Lucas Featured Film Horizon Line

The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs — Pushpendra Singh

March 15, 2022

The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs is a multilayered, intersectional films that resonates far beyond its humble, unassuming narrative.

In the annals of films about nomadic shepherds, Pushpendra Singh’s The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs stands in good company. There’s something about this subject that lends itself to great cinema — whether its Luigi Falorni and Byambasuren Davaa’s The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003), Sergei Dvortsevoy’s Tulpan (2008), or more recently, even Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland (2020), there’s something uniquely alien about the nomadic lifestyle, even (as in the case of Nomadland), when it’s happening in our own backyard.

Inspired by the poetry of 14th century Kashmiri mystic, Lalleshwari, The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs tells the story of a nomad named Laila (Navjot Randhawa), who finds herself trapped in a loveless, arranged marriage to Tanvir (Sadakkit Bijran), a fellow shepherd. Upon returning to Tanvir’s home village, Laila is courted by Mushtaq (Shahnawaz Bhat), a somewhat goofy ranger with the air of an Indian mall cop who can’t seem to leave her alone. Exhausted by the constant display of ineptitude by the men around her (Tanvir cluelessly misinterprets Mushtaq’s blatant advances at every turn), Laila decides to chart her own path in life, fending off their clumsy advances and ham-fisted attempts to control her life and refashioning herself into a fierce, independent creature.

Divided into seven chapters (or songs) that cover everything from marriage to regret to attraction to renunciation, The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs is a strikingly composed magical realist feminist fable set against the breathtaking backdrop of the mountains of Kashmir, an area between India and Pakistan that is hotly contested by both nations for its wealth of natural resources. Singh (who also wrote the screenplay), gives the film the air of a timeless fairy tale, rich with symbolic imagery and playful observations on masculinity and feminine independence. Like all great fables, the film is rife with real-world parallels for its story, but on a grander scale, Laila becomes a symbol for all of Kashmir, reclaiming her agency from two warring factions fighting over her. Singh merges feminist ideals with a larger geopolitical struggle, hedging a macro view of liberation from patriarchal power structures with a more micro examination of archaic cultural traditions, and thus creating a multilayered, intersectional narrative that resonates beyond its humble, unassuming tale of wandering shepherds. The results are a lovely thing to behold.

Originally published as part of New Directors/New Films 2020 — Dispatch 2.