Padmavyuha

Padmavyuha (2020)

Before a young multi-cultural audience in an American university, Shaki Ramdas (Nikhil Prakash), a confident, clean-shaven professor of sociology and religious studies, is giving a lecture on the nature of faith. He even writes the word in big capitals on the blackboard and underlines them: FAITH. As he carefully disentangles religion from the other two orders – money and politics – that he says have allowed human society to develop at scale, his lecture forms the backbone of Padmavyuha – but most of this film is a series of flashbacks, shot in black and white to contrast with the lecture’s present-time colour. 

These flashbacks start with a bearded Ramdas in his office at night, hesitating to submit an application for lecture funding. That hesitation, and the doubt that it implies, defines the professor, an expert on the world’s religions who is also an agnostic. His uncertainty has brought him to a crisis – indeed a crisis of faith – as he can no longer remember why he does what he does, and is unsure how to reconcile his teachings with all the oppression and violence in the world which people have carried out in the name of religion.

It is at this crux in Ramdas’ life, as his finger hovers over his computer, that he will receive a call from an ancient, dusty rotary phone hidden in a box. The Voice on the other end of the line will direct Ramdas to investigate the disappearance of an American journalist who was in turn investigating the ‘SSR’, an organisation of Hindu fundamentalists associated with extremism and terrorism – and so, in these monochrome memories that already look like film noir, Ramdas will form an unlikely alliance with retired Christian detective Mark King (Ross Turner) on an irrational quest that the academic barely understands, but still chooses to pursue to its end – a quest for clarity and truth in a world of shadows.

For his first film as writer/director, Raj Krishna flirts with different genres. There are references not just to noir, but also to horror – one sequence showing Ramdas in a dark misty street outside a house is modelled on William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), significantly a film also focused on a crisis of faith. There is even, near the end, a mind-expanding space tunnel reminiscent of the climax to Stanley Kubrick’s humanist sci-fi 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet all these decidedly cinematic scenarios are used to play out a more internal drama. “True faith comes from within,” the mysterious, god-like Voice on the phone will tell Ramdas, “Look inside yourself.” And so Ramdas does, as his investigation into a ramifying conspiracy of clashing religious and political forces allegorises his own spiritual struggles as a myth of enlightenment. 

At the beginning of Padmavyuha, we see this internal struggle visualised precisely by a photograph of a crime scene, drawings of religious icons, hand-written notes, cryptographic charts and a recurring spiral symbol, all linked together by an elaborate spider’s web of red string. All these disparate images and associations, gradually brought together by the film, show the workings of a mind trying to make connections, and to interpret the world as though it were a secret history or arcane text, in search of hidden meaning.

The spiral icon on this conspiracy board is the Padmavyuha that gives the film its enigmatic title: a military formation (described in the Sanskrit epic the Mahābhārata) which was used, as Radmas explains, for “building defensive layers around something you’re trying to protect”, but also, as we later learn, as a kind of labyrinthine trap for enemies. This ambiguous symbol also encodes Radmas’ ambivalent feelings towards his own religion, Hinduism, which he simultaneously longs to defend yet regards as an insidious source of oppression, classism and fascism. The professor will resolve for himself these contradictions by confronting Western rapine (embodied by Detective King) and re-examining the archaeological record as ‘proof’ of an alternative, pre-colonial history for the religion – and he finds at Hinduism’s ‘fundamental’ core not patriarchy, caste and bigotry, but a non-violent striving for good action and oneness with God (or at least with one’s divine inner voice).

In other words, Padmavyuha represents a deeply personal investigation into spiritual identity, coming from a filmmaker who is himself an Indian exile residing (like Radmas) in an America polarised by its own clash of secularism and religious fundamentalism. Ironically, the film’s plea for religious tolerance, pluralism and openness has seen it targeted by right-wing Hindu fundamentalists who regard those principles as an attack on their own values. “We’re in the Padmavyuha,” as Radmas observes. For here religion is both protection and trap – and as Radmas’ dark world is slowly filled with colour and his scepticism replaced with conviction, he finds a way to separate the good in faith from the bad.

Krishna’s metaphysical mystery is an odd film. At 39 minutes in length, it occupies a sort of borderline – just one minute shy of meeting the criteria for a feature film as defined by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the American Film Institute and the British Film Institute, while too long to feel like a ‘short film’. This awkward, liminal status is well matched to a protagonist who is himself in a state of intermediacy. For caught between rationalism and belief, between his Eastern origins and Western home (and the West’s pervasive ‘Orientalist’ myths about India), Ramdas hesitates – before taking a leap of faith. 

strap: Raj Krishna’s not-quite-short film Padmavyuha stages a man’s crisis of faith as a genre-bound conspiracy investigation

© Anton Bitel