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hisssposter160This is the first installment of an exploration of the failure of the American-East Indian co-production of Hisss (2010) a film about the Nagin, a fertility goddess in snake form, who has appeared as the protagonist of literally dozens of Indian movies.

The filming of Hisss began with very high hopes and excitement, because for the first time the story was going to be told by an American, and a woman at that. But what emerged from the co-production was a box office and artistic disaster, about which everyone involved would gladly forget.

And yet its American director, Jennifer Chambers Lynch, daughter of David Lynch, could not forget.


Lynch had a track record of making surreal, horror-tinged films when she was recruited for Hisss—Boxing Helena (1993), and Surveillance (2008) and for a long time after the production of Hisss, she went off the rails sifted and resifted her time in India to try to understand why her previous experiences as a successful filmmaker had not stood her in good stead.

The events also continued to intrigue Australian filmmaker Penny Vozniak, whose documentary, Despite the Gods, her first film, is a record of the behind the scenes interpersonal drama of the making of Hisss.

The joint venture began when Govind Menon, an enterprising Indian producer, wooed Lynch to come to India and team up with him for what he described to her as a ground breaking international collaboration.

But as Despite the Gods shows; one month into production the team effort was already in deep trouble, and then things went downhill.


If anything of value has come out of the ensuing eight months of grueling production conflicts, it is Vozniak’s record of the breakdown of the Lynch-Menon production in all its cataclysmic multi-cultural, gender-inflected implications.

The traditional Indian myth of the Nagin tells of the kidnapping of her mate by a mortal man who wishes to force her to bestow her gift of immortality on him. A tale of hubris, the Nagin
myth demonstrates the futility of human grandiosity before the gods.

Nagin is not intimidated. She hunts down her presumptuous adversary and swallows him whole. As the latest in a long series of film versions of this story, Hisss exists onscreen as an almost unwatchable crazy quilt of false beginnings, mismatched scraps of action and mood, and a completely flat “climactic” moment; it exists in Lynch’s memory as a thoroughly confused riot of production difficulties. The clash between Lynch and Menon exists in Vozniak’s verite documentary, in transparent footage unaccompanied by any voiceover commentary. It all will now also exist in this article as a study of the chaos of the miscommunication that erupted during the production.


While Lynch slogged through mud and cyclones for nine months, as close to the center of the event as it is possible to be, she never felt she understood what was happening until Despite the Gods brought some clarity, but even then she was left with many questions. Vozniak who was an eye witness for the entire shoot did not feel she understood what she was looking at through the camera lens until she screened her own dailies. This tangle of personalities and cultural assumptions became a fascinating example of what good documentary can and can’t add to our knowledge of reality, and this article will add one more perspective.

Hisss, uninteresting in itself, is compelling as a battleground on which the myth of the ancient fertility goddess is pulled in two directions by Menon, a traditional male Indian producer, who believed he was attempting to push the envelope; and Lynch, a controversial American female director whose understanding of what Menon meant by producing a ground breaking film, was, as we shall see, completely different from his. There is at least some ironic interplay between the Nagin myth and the ordeal that Lynch endured working with Menon, a man who, if Despite the Gods is to be believed, treated Lynch’s artistic gifts with casual dismissiveness during the making of the film. Lynch has repeatedly told me that she continues to admire Menon, and believes that he never acted out of malice toward her—and Despite the Gods would seem to bear out that he himself was confused by his own behavior. Lynch still nurses a wish that there could have been some form of discussion that would have clarified what went wrong between them, but it does not seem likely that her wish will be granted.


Penny Vozniak remains a friend of both Lynch’s and Menon’s; for her bygones are bygones. Since Menon is not accessible to me, he remains the most mysterious person in this account, in which the male gaze is absent. This is the other irony that can be lost on no one familiar with the history of the pervasively absent female gaze in the film industry: Despite the Gods is a story of women looking at women, unchaperoned by a controlling male gaze. My article adds a third woman’s perspective, but once removed from the actual events. Were we all necessary to the creation of a full and fair commentary on the making of Hisss?

What are the consequences of the absence of Govind Menon’s perspective in the coming installments? You will be surprised.

Hisss Trailer

Despite the Gods Trailer





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