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Review: Despite the Gods (Directed by Penny Vozniak) (Fantasia 2012)

Despite the Gods (Directed by Penny Vozniak) (Fantasia 2012)
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PLOT: Fresh from her well-received indie, SURVEILLANCE, director Jennifer Lynch is invited to shoot a big-budget Bollywood film in Mumbai. Titled NAGIN: THE SNAKE GODESS, Lynch’s collision with the Bollywood film industry ends disastrously, and this is a chronicle of her experiences shooting the film she eventually disowned.

REVIEW: DESPITE THE GODS is a film that probably would have never come out had director Lynch- daughter of David, and herself no stranger to controversy (BOXING HELENA) not been able to bounce back so quickly with her next film, CHAINED. But- lucky for us, she did- and DESPITE THE GODS is now free to take its place alongside films like LOST IN LA MANCHA, and OVERNIGHT- examining just how quickly a production can spiral out of control.

Lynch obviously has pretty thick skin, as many directors in her place would have never allowed such a doc to ever see the light of day, but Lynch has supported it to the extent that she even introduced it at the Fantasia premiere. Truthfully, no one depicted in DESPITE THE GODS comes off totally blameless, although the eventual fate of the film can’t be blamed on one person, but rather that Hollywood and Bollywood are just two radically different places to make a film. Just because you succeed in one, doesn’t mean you’ll succeed in the other.

It’s hard to imagine why Lynch, who spent years battling her way back into the industry after BOXING HELENA won her almost universal scorn, would sign on to do a film in Bollywood. It was a huge risk, and it’s obvious, right from the start- documenting Lynch’s first days in India, that she’s in over her head. Not only does she have a huge film to make with a pushy producer, but she’s also a single mother- and her precocious thirteen-year old, Sydney, becomes a constant presence on the set.

Every aspect of the pre-prodcution and shooting was documented by director Penny Vozniak, and I assume DESPITE THE GODS was originally started as a DVD production diary that suddenly transformed into something radically different, and infinitely more fascinating. Lynch is presented as head-strong, and stubborn- and having a distinctly western sensibility, she’s taken aback by the melodramatic tendencies of Bollywood films- as shown in an early scene where the producer, Govind Menon, runs her a new film.

Menon ultimately emerges as the “bad guy” although, it’s not that he’s not a nice guy, but rather that he’s under a huge amount of pressure himself. He constantly chastises Lynch for allowing her daughter on the set, and for being a perfectionist, and repeatedly threatens to take over as director in order to finish the film- which quickly falls behind schedule. She also has to deal with a leading actress, Bollywood superstar Mallika Sherawat, who starts off helpful, but eventually becomes a diva- and is so shy about wearing revealing costumes that one wonders why she would have ever agreed to make a film that’s supposed to be sexy. Still, you can’t blame her, as the attitude in Bollywood towards sex in films is far different from the Western perspective (something Lynch has a hard time with).

If there’s a saving grace for Lynch, it’s the friendships that spring up between her and the good-natured Bollywood crew- who seem genuinely devoted to helping Lynch make the film she wants to make. In the end, NAGIN- now known as HISSSS, apparently became a terrible film. But- while maybe HISSSS is a waste of film, DESPITE THE GODS certainly isn’t, and emerges as a fascinating look at just how quickly a film can totally spiral out of control- even if everyone involved has the best intentions.

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