During the opening credits of Banaras, director Pankuj Parashar forewarns audiences that his film doesn't promote superstitious beliefs. That caution is probably for the benefit of Indians or Hindus, whose cultural traditions and religions are rooted deeply in mythology and mysticism. But it's less superstition and more spirituality that is at the heart of this thought provoking drama, which stars Urmila Matondkar as a young woman who is forced to search for the true meaning of life after suffering a terrible personal tragedy.
17 years after Shwetambari (Matondkar) left the holy city of Banaras she is compelled to return to India to meet her dying father (Raj Babbar) and mother (Dimple Kapadia) with whom she broke off all attachments. Just why she abandoned her family and home is revealed in flashback: we learn how the world-renowned teacher in philosophy and religion was once a bright young science student who fell in love with Soham (Ashmit Patel), a low caste music teacher. But what we don't know is how their lives were affected by Babaji (Naseeruddin Shah), a mystical guru.
"CENTURIES OLD DEBATE"
It takes a mature storyteller to tackle a film like Banaras that combines a love story with spiritualism, and Parashar does so with sensitivity. Peeling off layer-by-layer he reveals there's much more to his film than the tumultuous events that change the life of an upper caste Brahmin girl and a lower caste boy. It's actually the centuries old debate between science and theology that is the key to unlocking the climactic secret journey taken by the main protagonists and the personal one experienced by viewers. A far cry from those masala films Hindi cinema is generally associated with, Banaras caters to an open-minded audience.