Directed & Written by Raj Krishna.
Starring Nik Kash, Pooja Batra, Ross Turner, & Vikki Beretta.
Not Rated / 39 minutes
Mystery / Thriller
★★★★1/2I’d like to preface my essay with the fact that, for those who don’t know, I’m a queer white writer. This film is heavily based in Hinduism and Indian history, so I’m writing from the standpoint of a total outsider. Nevertheless, ignore the IMDB ratings for Padmavyuha. Not trying to be presumptuous about the opinions of people I don’t know, but from the reviews on the film’s IMDB page it seems people with a vested interest in Hinduism either only watched part of Raj Krishna’s 39-minute short, or completely misunderstood its aims. A bunch of users are under the impression Krishna is somehow speaking ill of Hinduism. On the contrary, by the end of the story it’s totally the opposite.
The story centres on Professor Shaki Ramdas (Nik Kash). He teaches religion yet seems to have disdain for it, particularly focused on Hinduism as being connected to “oppression, classism, and fascism.” He starts to receive mysterious phone calls, and the voice on the other end challenges the professor’s conception of Hinduism. Soon, Professor Ramdas starts to have an epiphany about his own perspective and how it’s been influenced.
Is the mysterious caller trying to help? Or is the intent sinister?
Padmavyuha is a beautifully filmed short, moving between black-and-white and colour, and it’s just as well acted. The best part is the story’s core theme. Krishna’s screenplay is a great piece of work that uses film noir-like conventions to explore a postcolonial perspective on the history of Hinduism in India. Professor Ramdas’s existential journey towards the truth is a compelling one that forces us to reckon with not only how colonialism has damaged the people in colonised countries, but also how it has damaged people’s perspectives of their own cultures.
Krishna employs film noir-style conventions to make us think the shadowy voice on the phone is meant to be a bad entity, some dark, negative influence. This actually echoes the colonial mindset, that too much ‘unofficial’ knowledge and resistance is wrong, like an unknown voice on the other end of the phone telling you everything the white academy’s been teaching you is false. In reality, the voice is liberating. The voice is attempting to break Professor Ramdas free of the colonialist shackles confining his mind, waking him up to the “Orientalist myths” created by colonisers that blame Hinduism for the caste system, patriarchy, and Muslim oppression.
An important moment with Detective Mark King (Ross Turner) involves a quote from John Milton’s Paradise Lost that epitomises how the mind itself can be colonised making “Hell of Heaven, and Heaven of Hell.” The black-and-white in the film can be taken as representative of how the professor views the world. Eventually he sees it’s more complex, that Hinduism cannot be reduced to a one-dimensional argument when India’s history is marked by British colonialism. Specifically when we see Ramdas find the Kalpa Vigraha it’s shown as golden in colour while everything else is still black-and-white, illustrating how the professor’s binary view of the world as good or evil is shattered.
Krishna’s use of a group called SSR is an interesting component of the screenplay, albeit a brief one. Professor Ramdas initially cites the global expansion of a fundamentalist group SSR— very likely based on RSS, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an extremist Indian group of Hindu nationalists— as evidence Hinduism is a negative force like any other religion with extremist groups. I’m not trying to rehabilitate the real RSS, they’re a despicable group who once expressed their admiration of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. However, part of what Padmavyuha‘s purpose as a film entails is taking a hard look at the effects of colonialism, even if it’s uncomfortable for us at times, and were India not colonised violently by the British Empire it’s highly likely a group like RSS wouldn’t exist.
Detective King is a compelling character, essentially standing in for white colonial power itself. The cop violently asserts ownership of the Kalpa Vigraha, claiming it was found on his land. For all the cop’s talk about religion earlier he’s really only out for himself and for capital. He doesn’t care about the religious significance of the Kalpa Vigraha, he wants money. This is further colonisation beyond the original act of colonialism. A great allegory for white men taking artefacts from places their countries have colonised, claiming them as their own, as if they’ve ‘discovered’ it. We have museums full of supposed discoveries when the British Museum, among many others, is really just a warehouse of stolen cultural artefacts.
The reclamation of the Kalpa Vigraha is a significant figurative act that allows Professor Ramdas to wholly break free of colonial influence. An ancestor spirit comes out of nowhere to kill the white cop and take back the idol. This spirit helps reclaim that lost, buried history of Hinduism and entrusts it to Ramdas. This supernatural act can be taken as an allegory of those who practice Hinduism reclaiming their religion from colonialist influences, a connection between Ramdas and his Indian ancestors prior to being colonised. This Hindu spirit eliminates the white colonial middleman standing in the way of Hindu’s origins and those who’ve been purposefully blinded by colonialism’s myriad of social and political effects.
Padmavyuha is a gorgeous and stunning film. Raj Krishna proves he has a talented director’s eye and a strong storytelling voice. This could well have been done as a drama. Krishna instead makes use of genre filmmaking in order to amp up the themes, making Professor Ramdas’s story all the more eerie and exciting. There’s even a shot that feels like an homage to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Clearly Krishna has a deep interest in genre films and also in telling important cultural stories through the use of genre. And it’s the cultural aspect of Padmavyuha that really hooks its audience.
Professor Ramdas goes from colonised mindset to intellectual freedom. In the end, he takes on the duty of helping to decolonise the landscape of post-secondary education by teaching against the narrative of old white Western men. I’m currently a PhD candidate and luckily the university where I study, at least the English department, has made strong attempts to focus on postcolonial studies. Though overall, post-secondary education continues to suffer in many, many ways from its colonial roots. Many universities have white people teaching Black history or Indigenous studies. Plenty of institutions have too vast a disparity between acceptance rates for white students versus those for students of colour. Like Professor Ramdas we must take up the mantle of decolonising education, post-secondary or otherwise, and work on truly mitigating the damaging effects of colonialism and whiteness on a significant level. That, to me, is the ultimate message lying within Krishna’s Padmavyuha.