Monday, November 10, 2008

MIAAC: Bound, Unbound

The existence of religious tension in India will not exactly come as headline news. It probably will not come as a surprise either that its voices of moderation and tolerance often come from musicians. Such is the case in Shabnam Virmani’s documentary Bound, Unbound: Journeys with Ram & Kabir, which screened at this year’s MIAAC Film Festival.

Virmani begins her filmmaking journey in Ayodhya, the legendary birthplace of the Hindu God Ram (Rama), which would become particularly emblematic of religious strife. In the Sixteenth Century, a Hindu temple was demolished on Ram’s Fort Hill, by the Mughals to erect the Babri Mosque, widely celebrated for its ornate architecture. In 1992 throngs of Hindu nationalists returned the favor, demolishing the Mosque for the sake of Ram’s honor. Virmani interviews unrepentant street vendors hawking videos of the destruction, who clearly leave her discouraged. Can she find contemporary manifestations of Ram, besides such intolerance porn?

As it turns out, yes, thanks to musicians interpreting the work of Fifteenth Century poet Kabir. Thought to have been raised by a Muslim family, but taught by a Hindu master, the exact details of Kabir’s life are shrouded in mystery. Inspired by Ram, his own work seemed to draw from both traditions, leading many to think he deliberately conflated differences between the two. As a result, Virmani finds both Indian Hindus and Pakistani Sufi Muslims who take inspiration from his words.

When watching Unbound, prepare yourself for some serious harmonium. A close relative of the accordion, the hand-pumped keyboard is perfectly suited for the drone-like, ecstatic music of Kabir’s followers. Intended to induce a trancelike state, their groove really is hypnotic. The MIAAC also screened an entertaining documentary about one of Bollywood’s greatest composers, but the music of Unbound totally overshadows it.

Traveling in a Northwestern direction, Virmani introduces the audience to Prahlad Tipaniya of the Ujjain province (West Central India) and Mukhtiar Ali from Bikaner, Rajasthan (Northwest India). Their music is certainly compelling, but the most dramatic sounds probably come from Sufi Qawwal performer Fariduddin (Fareed) Ayaz and his ensemble. Hugely charismatic, Ayaz’s personality and his humanist philosophy dominates the final third of the film.

Part of Virmani’s four film Kabir documentary project, Unbound combines ecstatic music with a truly humanistic spirit. Even if its message of tolerance proves chimeric, the transcendent appeal of the music remains. It was perfect programming choice for this year’s MIAAC Film Festival.