Wednesday, May 08, 2019

NYIFF ’19: Draupadi Unleashed

During the heyday of the British Raj, the Indian elites could be just as scandalous as the Colonials. That will be particularly true for Indira. It is not her intention, but her resistance to traditional gender roles will inevitably lead to conflict in Tom Stopperan & “co-director” Nisha Sabharwal’s Draupadi Unleashed, which screens tonight during the 2019 New York Indian Film Festival.

If you blink, you might miss the marriage of Indira’s mother, Sita, whose tragically short tenure was foretold by a mysterious, magically realistic harbinger. Yet, she was rather fortunate, because she was welcomed into her in-laws’ family, becoming a daughter to the lovely and gracious matriarch, Amma.

When Indira reaches marriageable age, her union to the well-heeled Amar is similarly arranged. Initially, she is not entirely opposed to her entitled intended, but she has feelings for someone else: an ardent, but somewhat immature cousin (how Austenian). Her sort-of Aunt Masumi still has feelings for and long history with Amar herself, so sparks are likely to fly. As the drama and resentment ebbs and flows over the course of years, Indira will take the sometimes-dubious advice of Manu, a formerly reclusive guru.

Essentially, Draupadi is an elegant looking, richly furnished soap opera, with all the benefits associated with the genre. It has a classy sheen and a legitimate interest in women’s rights in Indian, which sometimes evokes a vibe similar to that of Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children adaptation. There is simmering passion, long buried secrets, and strange mystical happenings.

Draupadi was a mythic figure, whose own problematic marriage was not healthy or happy. The title is a bit obscure for American audiences, but not completely inapt, because this is very definitely a woman’s story. Yet, Salena Qureshi never really engages as the standoffish Indira. Instead, it is Anna George and Azita Ghanizada who really connect, giving the film tragic heft as Amma and Masumi, respectively. However, Dominic Rains (who established his indie cred in films like Burn Country, a.k.a. The Fixer, and The Persian Connection, a.k.a. The Loner) conspicuously upstages everyone, especially Qureshi, as the petulant Amar.

is a juicy period production, filled with scandal and sizzle. It is not exactly high art, but it looks great. Think of it as slightly saucy Merchant-Ivory. Recommended for fans of historical dramas with a touch of spice, Draupadi Unleashed screens tonight (5/8), as part of this year’s NYIFF.