Despite the Gods (2015)
Starring Jennifer Lynch, Mallika Sherawat
Directed by Penny Voziak
Jennifer Lynch was worried she was cursed.
Her father had suffered harshly over his third film, Dune. He’d lost his work, been publicly shamed by the producers, and had taken a huge psychological blow over the fight.
Now, here she was, on her third film. It was being taken from her. She was being pushed out. The producers were becoming more and more hostile. It was taking a huge psychological toll. Would she suffer the same fate? Would her career be over?
That reality is the tale told in Despite The Gods. Lynch had been hired by Indian producers to make a Hollywood/Bollywood mash up based on the Indian legend of Nagin, a snake goddess. Lynch agreed to write and direct it, with a planned six-week shoot in India.
Nine months later, she completed her film and left India, only to have it taken from her and re-finished by the same producers who hired her.
While the subject of the film within a film is a horror tale, so is Despite The Gods. You get to know Lynch early and well, and the impression is one of a deeply decent, human woman who wants to do well, who wants to do something worthy of this ancient legend. As you watch things go wrong again and again, all too often at her expense rather than at her hands, horror is the only word to describe the emotion you’re left with.
Conditions in India during the shoot are extreme. Uncontained. Deeply dangerous. You worry for the safety of Lynch, her crew, and the production throughout as they run into the elements, lax safety measures common in Indian filmmaking, and even wild and angry mobs.
And then there’s Sydney.
First-time feature director Vozniak was wise early on to detect the importance Lynch’s daughter, Sydney, would play in the coming months. Hired to direct the “behind the scenes” for an eventual DVD release, Vozniak stayed around as things went south and filmed everything. Her instinct to follow Sydney’s story and role in things makes Despite The Gods what it is.
Sydney is twelve when the film begins and turns thirteen on set. A fragile age for any girl, and she’s living it in India shooting a horror film, with a newly-sober mother watching her dreams vanish. The producers make it clear they don’t want Sydney there. Lynch insists: Where she goes, Sydney goes.
We see Sydney become a member of the crew. She’s never far from the camera’s view: applying makeup, moving props around, just helping any way she can.
You sense very early that Sydney takes care of Lynch as much as the opposite. She’s wise beyond her years, and Lynch perhaps more emotional and childlike in her views of the world than some adults. She’s definitely mom, but her bond and reliance on her daughter is the backbone of Despite The Gods and, it’s clear, her life at the time.
What plays out is part examination of filmmaking cultures clashing and this relationship between Lynch and her daughter. In both, it’s Lynch and her determination to do the right thing that stands clear as the driving force. She refuses to give up her sobriety. She refuses to give up her vision. Most importantly, she refuses to become a bad person while doing both.
She makes mistakes, she acts out, she breaks under the pressure, and your heart breaks with her every time. Vozniak does her best to show a balanced portrait of what happened (and had her hands forced, according to the post-screening Q&A by Lynch, by producers who refused to allow Vozniak to use some footage of the worst of their offenses), but you can’t help falling in love with Jennifer Lynch at least a little bit over the course of this film.
Another standout is the lead actress of the film within a film, Mallika Sherawat. One of India’s biggest stars, she’s already pushed the cultural envelope of what women can display on film. Now, Lynch is asking her to go further.
We see Mallika fretting over the repercussions of showing too much skin or being too sensual, telling Lynch she won’t have to live there once the filming is done. But then, we also see her flying into a rage when other actors won’t push the envelope and treat her the way the scene demands because it’s so important to her to try and break those cultural barriers. Mallika is clearly shown to be intelligent, courageous, and victimized by the very nation she loves. We talk about rape culture and patriarchy a lot in the US… folks, you have no idea. Watch this film and you’ll see what you’re talking about. It’s terrifying. And it’s every day for even a major celebrity like Mallika. What is it like for regular women?
Yet, overall, Lynch, Vozniak, and this film refuse to be anti-India. The film manages to be a love letter to the country despite the cultural and social failings on display. That seems to be the way Lynch lives her life, and so the film adapts to that view: No matter what bad happens, both refuse to outright condemn anyone or anything. During that Q&A, Lynch was given the chance to throw the producers completely under the bus and refused, outright. She made it clear she reached out to them to make amends… which boggles the mind after viewing what happened. Despite The Gods could turn into a poison pen tell-all, but it doesn’t, and Lynch clearly refuses to do that off screen as well.
Vozniak’s direction and editing are flawless. She had nine months of footage and took four years to pull this film out of it, and she has created a deeply entertaining and disturbing film. Some of the moments in Despite The Gods will bring you to tears, some will enrage you, some will make you laugh. That’s a testament to Vozniak’s ability to tell the story, and it’s a great story.
Thankfully, despite the worst happening, Lynch comes out the winner in an epilogue I won’t spoil. Suffice to say she’s happy, and curse or no curse, she is still doing what she loves. I’m just glad we got to share this journey with her.