Originally a novel by Rajan Kumar Patel, this British crime thriller movie, set in the sumptuous city of Varanasi in India, is the début feature for the writer as director and producer. The story is an intriguing mix of cultural themes, and is one of a new wave of Indian/English cinema fusion films that the UK has seen in recent times.
In the alleys and ghats of Varanasi, a serial killer is burning and cooking women alive whilst performing wedding ceremonies to the bodies. CBI officer Arjun Das pieces together the clues left behind the ritual killings in an effort to catch the elusive killer before the festival of Holi.
At the same time an English teacher, Helen, arrives in the city in search of her aunt and during her short stay she uncovers dark secrets of her life which throw her mind into turmoil. Whilst discovering herself in India, she comes across Nana a dark priest who is found living my burial pyres, committing last rites and bathing in the ashes of the dead.
It is refreshing to see a thriller set in a new background and we explore different themes through this. Culturally, the slaying of women in India has been a long standing practice called ‘honor killing’ and has been a tradition that cannot be stopped. We watch the taboo relationships building and families objecting and the use of black magic to correct mistakes. Suicide in Hinduism is seen as a sin and your soul will never be reunited with your loved ones. Nana explains to Arjun in a chance meeting, that to save his love ones soul, he must make sacrifices in her name.
The film shows a strong sense of community versus the broken relationship of Helen and her aunt. However no matter how strong the community, the killer uses this to trap women close to him and illuminate before the police catching wind.
The introduction of Helen, the foreigner into the story is not integral but later is symbolic of her being something special and she becomes the last and final sacrifice for the killer. Her relationship with Nana becomes stronger and he helps her through her troubled past. Unfortunately you cannot take people for face value wherever you are.
Visually, Patel uses his rich imagination to make a colourful drama mystery than a thriller, as the pace is gentle and questioning, but this might just be that the script could’ve done with another draft. At times conversations seems disjointed and awkward between Helen and her aunt, even though they talk about being close.
The plot, while interesting, does not flow fluidly. All the parts based in the projector room seem out of place, I felt no affinity to the CBI officer, who felt like the main character. Helen seemed too trusting and quite flat as a character. The important passages from the book are spoken by actors which are hard to make out because of the thick Indian accents, that audiences might find subtitles helpful.
Nothing can detract from some pretty dark themes and observations about religion, namely the Hindu caste system of who you can associate with and marry and attitudes to spirituality, which are fascinating and give the film its tone and depth.
FEAST OF VARANASI
Dir/Wri/Pro: Rajan Kumar Patel
Starring: Adil Hussain, Holly Gilbert, Tannishtha Chatterjee
Released: 11th March 2016