THE JENNIFER-PENNY CHRONICLES: MAKING HISSS – Chapter Two

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WHAT JENNIFER LYNCH SAW

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The facts of the story that emerge, as Jennifer Lynch and Penny Vozniak tell it, are that when Govind Menon recruited Lynch in Los Angeles to direct his film, he assigned her the task of adapting the Nagin myth and that Lynch did her research and fell in love with the story of the enigmatic, powerful snake goddess. Not a religious woman herself, Lynch was fascinated by those who do believe, and pray to a statue of Nagin in her snake form, asking to be blessed with children through a ritual that involves pouring milk on a statue that represents her. She evolved her own poetic understanding of the Nagin’s mythical possession of the nagmani, a stone that allows her to grant immortality, and the ferocity with which she guards her magic as a fertility goddess. For western women, Nagin rings changes on the way our culture depicts fertility goddesses as purely receptive.

The attraction Nagin might hold for an innovative American woman filmmaker needs no explanation. Lynch intended to make a movie that celebrates female strength and creativity through a multi-plot parable that contrasts the audacity of attempting to seize immortality as if it were an object and the beauty of a love that by its organic nature seeks the immortality that comes of having children and grandchildren. She envisioned her film containing not only the tragic futility of attempting to dominate fate, but also a secondary drama, with somewhat comic inflections, of the Guptas, a policeman and his wife, who finally succeed in fulfilling their desire for a child that has been thwarted by one miscarriage after another. Because Lynch was making the film in India, she expected to have the freedom to work in the mixed genre tradition of Indian cinema, playing with the kind of tonal variations and musical production numbers that are relatively unusual in American filmmaking, but are part of the history of Indian cinema. She set out to make a film that was a horror film, a comedy, and a musical that would be meaningful to a modern, multi-cultural audience.

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As an artist, she was excited to have the opportunity to reflect on a feminine sensibility from an innovative perspective; and, as a single mother, she was excited about having the chance to give her twelve-year old daughter Sydney an opportunity to see a different culture from the inside. As Lynch understood it, Menon was pleased by her take on the project and was looking forward to working with her. On his part, Menon, who had an established career in India, and had studied film in the United States at Middlebury in Vermont and at the University of Texas at Austin, had every reason to believe that he was the right man to captain an international film project, since he was immersed from birth in Indian cinema and had studied film in America. He believed he had the right woman for the job since he had seen Lynch’s film Surveillance and had confidence, as he told her, that the director of that dark, surreal film with its unusual tone and mood would add just the right dimension to his Nagin project. Lynch was exhilarated by the chance to work in India and had many signals from Menon that he would work well with her.

However, even at the beginning, there were shades of difference between their expectations of what each would gain from making the film that neither gave much weight to.

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I gather from Lynch that Menon was open about his interest in what he saw as a strong potential for international sales of the proposed film. Lynch too was hoping for a good box office, but she was more motivated by the potential for growth and learning as a part of Menon’s team. As she put the situation to me: “I thought, ‘Here’s an opportunity to do things that would not play in the United States. When someone is sad in this they’re going to break into song. When someone is happy in this they’re going to break into song.’ We used to do that in our musicals, but we don’t anymore. And I thought, ‘Wow, Jen, this is really an opportunity to do some stuff that scares you and that these people love.’ Here’s an example of what I wanted to do. In a scene down by the lakeside, while Nagin was bathing, I was going to have this entire forest behind her, but you were suddenly going to realize that they were people painted like trees. Women. These women were going to come to life and to move. It was all female energy and fun. I wanted a Mary Poppins element. I wanted a Grease element; I wanted a 1970s love story element. I wanted there to be moments of magic that were so beautiful that you just looked at it and it was something to behold. There would be moments of stillness and moments of reat action. I had a very specific idea for the special effects and a very specific idea for the music…. I wanted it to be beautiful and absurd and honest and authentic and yet totally fantastic in its elements of worship and faith. I wanted at the end to think that Nagin was as much a superhero as she was a goddess, and it might be kinda cool to have a snake statue in my house that I pour milk on….There is immortality in our children and I get that.“

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Then, at the outset there were signs of the potential for discord, but Menon did approve Lynch’s script and its multi-plot narrative that juxtaposed two different kinds of relationships with the Nagin, and Lynch set out to film her story of the fruitless desperation for immortality on the part of a demented American with terminal brain cancer, George States (Jeff Doucette) and the tender, loving longing for a baby by the Guptas who never asked to be blessed by the goddess but eventually got swept up in her sudden appearance among humans. She was planning to work with a clear tonal juxtaposition of the suspense and darkness generated by the American villain, and the comic melodrama of Vinkram (Irrfhan Khan) and Maya Gupta’s (Divya Dutta) pregnancy story. The comic melodrama itself was to be a complicated melange of emotional trajectories, the authentic longings of the Guptas and the attitude of Maya’s slightly demented mother (Laxmi Bai), whose desire that her daughter become pregnant is more about traditional expectations than a yearning for new life.

Lynch wanted her film to braid the ancient with the modern. While the mythic Nagin (Mallika Sherawat) searches for her kidnapped lover in the age-old action plot based on the story familiar to Indian audiences; in the melodramatic/comic story arc, Lynch intended to explore what might drive a modern man, generally pragmatic in his dealings, a policeman, a man of honor, to turn, when all else failed him, toward the kind of faith in the supernatural he had previously thought absurd and fantastic. Lynch intended the Nagin’s journey in human form to express the feminine rage deeply rooted in time and tradition at what was essentially male brutality toward the feminine principle of life; while the Guptas would depict the way in which modern men relate to the atavistic pull of primordial religion. In other words, Lynch saw herself solidly engaging with old and new, using the multi-cultural and gendered aspects of the project in the service of originality. And she thought that was what Menon was after too.

What Vozniak’s Despite the Gods reveals is that despite the initial clarity that each felt about the project and the kind of partnership they were entering into, they were at cross purposes for the entire time of the principal shooting.

NEXT INTALLMENT: CHAPTER THREE: HOW PENNY VOZNIAK GOT INTO IT

PREVIOUS INSTALLMENTS:

CHAPTER ONE: HOW MANY OBSERVERS DOES IT TAKE TO SEE AN EVENT?

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