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A Span Media production. Produced by Sashi Kumar. Executive producer, Ajit Bhaskaran.

Directed, written by Sashi Kumar, from a short story by N.S. Madhavan; dialogue by Gopal Singh. Camera (color), A. B. Kaul; editor, Sreekar Prasad; music, Isaac Thomas Kottukapally; art director, Prakash Moorthy; sound (Dolby), Lakshimanarayanan; choreographer, Chandralekha. Reviewed at Indian Diaspora Film Festival, New York, Nov. 5, 2005. Rtmningtime: 104 MIN.

With: Seema Biswas, Angad Bedi, Neelambari Bhattacharya, Neeta Mohindra, Veni Susbanna, Soman Nambiar.

(Hindi, some English dialogue)

In Indian journalist Sashi Kumar's weirdly fascinating directorial debut, "Chrysalis," the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in the wake of Indira Gandhi's assassination is obliquely filtered through a plot about a Catholic convent for aged nuns. Though the sanctuary is tied to the main story of a young reporter's search for his cultural identity, the film's total immersion in the day-to-day workings of the order and the surrealisric senility of its inhabitants far surpasses any narrative necessity. Highly stylized one-of-a-kinder could appeal to both political and cult auds in specialized venues.

By some strange cinematic karma, after 20 years of official cover-ups and media silence, two films have emerged virtually simultaneously, "Chrysalis" and Shonali Bose's "Amu," that deal with the slaughter of some 3,500 Sikhs in three days that took place while police and militia stood by silently.

Both films deal indirectly with the violent events through the repressed traumatic memories of a child who witnessed them. But while "Amu" exhibits a linear earnestness, Kumar's version displays a disturbing lyricism, somewhere between "Black Narcissus" and Raul Ruiz's cinematic reveries, that plunges deep into the fetishism of religious devotion.

Triggered by a little boy's account of more recent violence between Hindus and Muslims in the bloody 2002 Gujarat riots, faint recollections haunt the film's journalist hero, Preet (Angad Bedi). Seizing on an assigned article about religious conversion as a convenient excuse, he travels to Meerut and a convent-cum-convalescent home run by Sister Agatha (Seema Biswas, in a role vastly more benevolent yet as compelling as her vengeful outlaw leader in Shekhar Kapur's harrowing "Bandit Queen").

The convent occupies two time zones, the present and the bygone days surrounding the assassination of Gandhi, when Sister Agatha took in a woman and her child, the two sole survivors of a slaughtered Sikh family.

An odd alternation of tranquil care-giving and off-kilter religiosity mark the nunnery scenes. Kumar's striking compositions linger on the solicitous dispensing of pills or soothing administration of oxygen, but then jarringly zoom in on the mad eyes of a feverishly prayer-intoning sister or jump-cut to the angry piano-jabbing of a nun in petulant second childhood.

Though a haven in a world gone mad, the convent is also a place of peculiar rites and weird transcendence. Startling breaks in continuity, Dutch tilts and fragmented action all lead up to the pic's most bizarre sequence--orchestrated by choreographer Chandralekha --involving the mother-and-son survivors and the nuns.

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Author:Scheib, Ronnie
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Dec 26, 2005
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