The sound of chanting, a young man breaking into a séance whilst a priestess chants words to bring Kali – herald of the apocalypse – to life. A girl holding a scarf and reading a newspaper article as she hears the cackling of the chvrail (a witch)
By Vivek Rajkhowa
These are just two scenes from newly released films Darkness Visible and Black Lake, which play heavily on the mythology of the two south Asian nations that their filmmakers Neil Biswas and K/XI are from to add an extra dimension of terror and mysticism to their respective movies.
For K, her heritage deeply influences her work, something she believes has helped her movies really resonate both with audiences in Pakistan and in Britain. “When I made my first movie Maya, it was all filmed in Pakistan with everything in Urdu. It got a good response in Pakistan, but what really surprised me was that when I showed it in the UK, people really got frightened and were talking about it for a long time after.”
The film is about an orphaned girl who is slowly taken over by the evil Djinn spirits, while also displaying Pakistani women not as second-class citizens but as civilians with agency. This struck a chord with British audiences.
“Someone came to me afterwards and asked me all about it. They wanted to know more as the film challenged what they thought they knew about Pakistan and Pakistani women.”
The positive reception to Maya helped K in the development of her current release Black Lake. “Black Lake mixes the issue of witches who seek revenge against those who have wronged them with the theme of violence against women, and then ran with it.”
Black Lake has been well received in both Pakistan and Britain. When asked why she thinks this is, K replied: “They were both good movies, which scared people and got them thinking. Like Maya, the film changed the narrative around Pakistani women. Giving them agency and strength instead of making them subservient.”
For Neil Biswas, the release of his first feature film Darkness Visible comes after almost two decades plying his craft in the UK. Having done programmes on the Bradford riots and on growing up in the immigrant Bengali community, Biswas’ first feature film explores the idea of a second-generation immigrant named Ronnie having to return to Kolkata, India and how he handles all the hurdles that are thrown his way.
For Biswas, making the movie had been quite difficult, but the reward was in the telling of the story. “This film has taken some time to make. The BFI helped. I used a lot of my own experience in terms of being the child of immigrants and how I used to feel when I returned to Kolkata as a kid. Feeling as though I belonged but also didn’t. Alongside Kolkata being a terrifying place, with a lot of people there during the day time but nobody there at night. Combined with the mythology of India, the plot sort of wrote itself.”
The positive reception for Darkness Visible greatly pleased Biswas, though he expressed some surprise.
“I don’t know why someone hasn’t made a film like this before. With there being such a lot of mythology to play around with in India and there being a lot of great south Asian filmmakers in Britain, hopefully more movies like mine get made.”
Whilst both K and Biswas believe the uniqueness of their films helped with how they were received, both recognise there are barriers to new entrants. As K explained: “It’s a matter for getting funding for a movie and who you know, not really about race or skin colour.” Hence why K took the films to film festivals before selling them independently.
Biswas added: “Indian filmmakers have to compete with the Bollywood monster. It dominates cinema space in Britain without advertising. That is why platforms such as iTunes are a boon for people like me, as they ensure we get some sort of feedback for all our hard work.”