THE JENNIFER-PENNY CHRONICLES: MAKING HISSS – Chapter Eight
All evidence points toward a conclusion that Hisss was undertaken by an independent American filmmaker without enough knowledge of how things are done in India, and an Indian producer with a history of directing in India who is seriously deficient in the vocabulary of the American style of movie he wanted to make. Govind Menon was intelligently aware that he did not have the flair for the American formulaic filmmaking he was aiming at and that he needed a collaborator who could fill in the gaps for him. However, it is very difficult to gather why he chose Jennifer Lynch, the poster girl for personal filmmaking, as the American director to realize his ambition for importing the American genius for cost-effective filmmaking for the masses into the Indian filmmaking culture. Thrown back on our own syntheses of available evidence, it would seem that the most likely explanation was that when the two spoke they used the same words at cross-purposes. Tossing around “groundbreaking,” “original,” and “different,” Menon appears to have meant that he was going to Americanize Indian film in an unprecedented way by shoe horning the conventionally mixed genre Indian film into the box of a neat American genre formula. On her part, Lynch appears to have understood those words to mean that Menon wanted to to free film from formula and to transform innovatively, but not abandon, the rich traditions of Indian moviemaking that so intrigue Lynch.
What we see of Mallika Sherawat suggests that she identified the blind spots of an Indian producer who was impatient with a woman who would not take orders, and a female American director who had no inkling of the traditions of female behavior in a paternalistic hierarchy. Lynch and Menon were locked in an old gender battle disguised by a mutual belief on the part of each in their own modernity. Neither Lynch, with her exposure to independent film and to art through her father and mother, nor Vosniak who had experienced complete freedom as an independent filmmaker and told me that she never thought of herself as a “woman filmmaker” until she was so described at film festivals, nor Menon whose American education had given him the illusion that he was familiar with the modern ways of America understood that they were continually bumping into the limit of Indian tolerance for “uppity” women that Sherawat arguably saw with clarity.
Despite what appears in Despite the Gods to be genuine initial mutual affection between Menon and Lynch, we see Menon taken over by a sense of masculine privilege when the pressure is on. Can we conclude that although he doesn’t seem to know it, there is no room in his world view for a truly independent woman? It is his silence, the absent male gaze, that in this circumstance leaves the question mark. His misunderstanding of himself, Lynch, and the situation appears to gradually congeal in front of Vozniak’s camera into aggression and then silence. Possibly we would know more about this if he had explicit statements of his point of view to include in this production history. But possibly Menon’s direct statements would do no more than verbalize his abusive bewilderment that Vozniak’s camera reveals.
At the end, we are left with a very bad feature movie, a rather provocative documentary, Govind Menon’s mute retreat, and Jennifer Lynch’s undaunted delight in what she saw and heard in India coupled with a sorrow and regret at the film that might have been, which she expressed to Vozniak, to me, and in Despite the Gods.
CODA: A few notes on my sources and the people involved
All references to the opinions and feelings of Jennifer Lynch are taken from the transcripts of two lengthy Skype interviews on November 11, 2013 and November 19, 2013 (approximately four hours total time). All references to the opinions and feelings of Penny Vozniak derive from what she told me during a three hour, in-person interview on October 1, 2013 in new York City.
For those not acquainted with Indian film, the actor who played the hero, Vinkram Gupta, Irrfan Khan is an Indian actor of some international standing, who played the adult Pi in Ang Lee’s, The Life of Pi (2012) and was in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012). He had a featured role in In Treatment (2008-2010), the American version of BiTipul, an Israeli television series, and in Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Khan refused permission for Vozniak to include in Despite the Gods any of the documentary footage she shot of him.
The actress who played the Nagin, Mallika Sherewat, whom Lynch referred to as the “Marilyn Monroe” of India, has been working in the Indian movie industry since 2002. She has also been in The Myth (2005, Dir. Stanley tong), a Hong Kong action film with Jackie Chan. Govind Menon directed her in three films before Hisss and in one film since Hisss.
For those not acquainted with the festival of Holi, which plays a substantial role in the film, it is a national Indian holiday, an ancient spring festival that celebrates love, and so is appropriate to the Nagin’s first appearance in town after emerging in human form in the jungle. Holi is a bacchanalian celebration that begins with a bonfire the night before the celebration begins in earnest. This leads to a dawn to dawn party at which friends and neighbors pelt each other with water and rainbow colored powders, dance wildly, and share treats, signifying the triumph of good over evil, the end of winter, and forgiveness in relationships.
Despite the Gods became a portrait of Jennifer Lynch as well as a portrait of the making of her film. Vozniak recorded on film a physically noticeable change in Lynch over the months of shooting because Lynch, at first thrown for a loop by the lack of organization of the production, began to neglect her health and her appearance, but after a month or two, Lynch figured out how to go with the flow and that was reflected in a big improvement in her appearance. Vozniak’s story editor, however, wanted Vozniak to shape the film to make it seem that falling in love had given Lynch a boost and was responsible for her turnaround. Vozniak, told me in so many words, that she was outraged by the idea that she give her film the flavor of a light Hollywood romance instead of recording the struggles of a strong and creative woman.
One of the things that Lynch found hardest to take about the collapse of her working relationship with Menon is that she had come to think of him as a personal friend. His silence and withdrawal from her toward the end of the production and post-production phases of the film came as an enormous shock to her.
Jennifer Lynch was very open about her life during the filming of Despite the Gods; she was also very open with me in our interviews. She spoke freely about being alone for twelve years as a single mother, about her back surgery, and her problems with drugs. In Vozniak’s documentary Lynch speaks often about being lonely, and wonders why she hasn’t found the right man for herself who can be a good father to her daughter. When Lynch took a break from Hisss after about eight months, she met and immediately fell in love with Jim Robbins, who is now her husband, and who, as part of the marriage has taken her name. On her return to filming, she spoke as often on camera about her love for Jim as she previously had spoken about being alone.
Jennifer Lynch works with actors in a way that is very similar to her father’s. They both transmit their ideas to the actors less through words and more through the power of their concentration on the actor. They both use images and parables when they talk rather than a more expository form of explanation. However, from what I observed of David Lynch on the set of Lost Highway, he is never as communicative about his personal feelings and personal life with his crew as his daughter is.
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