by Madhava Smullen
Vrindavan might just be a small, dusty town in Uttar Pradesh, India.
But there’s something about it that changes people. It’s not just the hundreds of temples to Lord Krishna, who spent His childhood there, or residents’ uniquely familiar love for Him as if He were not God but their own kid.
It’s also the chaos, the dust, the unavoidably close quarters with crowds of teeming humanity that seem to draw us out of our politely anti-social, technology-addicted, sterile Western worlds.
“People go to Vrindavan and their lives change… for the better,” says Shyam Gopal Das (Maksim Varfolomeev), who wrote and directed the 40-minute film Reconnection with his wife Vijaya Radhika Dasi (Olga Avramenko). The film has won an Award of Excellence from the Best Shorts Competition, whose previous winners have gone on to win Oscars and Emmys.
Originally from Omsk, Siberia, Shyam Gopal and his wife joined ISKCON in Almaty, Kazakhstan in 2003. She had been assistant editor for a regional network of newspapers; he had worked in commercials and as an editor for local TV channel Agava.
From the beginning they always heard of Vrindavan as a powerful, mystical place, and after a visit in 2005 that gave them the bug, they returned in 2009 to make a documentary about its many holy sites.
“We started filming and soon realized that it was not going to be easy,” Shyam says. “It was like the place was not letting us in. We had to stay in Vrindavan, submerge and absorb ourselves in the local life. It was the only way to make it happen.”
The couple moved their whole lives as well as their production studio to Vrindavan. In Siberia, they were used to six months of snow a year. Now the sun was beating down at 110F. They were used to efficient modern facilities. Now the power would cut out twice a day and they had to bathe in their rooftop water tank. There were dust storms, open sewers, and animals on streets.
“Nobody complained, that’s just the way things work in Vrindavan,” says Shyam. “We realized that we had to surrender, to let go, to let ourselves soak in the Vrindavan mood.”
The couple saw many others (over five million people visit Vrindavan every year) go through the same experience. They felt that Vrindavan was more about the experience than the location, and decided to make a semi-fictional narrative film rather than a straight documentary.
The resulting film, halfway between cinema verite and docu-drama, is beautifully shot and edited and captures in its warm earth tones the people, the buzzing energy, and the hectic town of Vrindavan – along with its conversely peaceful fields, golden sunrises and devotion.
Reconnection’s narrative is a composite of the experiences of both Shyam Gopal and many others. It tells the story of Sean Fletcher (portrayed in a naturalistic way by non-actor Gaura Gopal Das), a tech-savvy professional who drops by Vrindavan on his way to Nepal.
Fletcher is on the wrong side of the digital divide – he conducts his relationships through Skype and Facebook while ignoring people right in front of him – and is harried by his job and problematic romantic life (his Facebook relationship status is “It’s complicated”).
But as the Vrindavan experience breaks down his sanitized bubble – one where the question “How are you?” doesn’t warrant a real answer – it starts to look like Fletcher might discover the love and warmth of personal relationships, and through that reconnect with his own heart and values.
“The very essence of Vrindavan is personal,” says Shyam Gopal.
To capture the journey shown on film, the filmmakers often simply placed Gaura Gopal Das in an environment, made the camera invisible, and waited to see what would happen next. Much of the magic is watching local Brijabasis play themselves – shopkeeper Gopal Prasad, Radha Raman temple priests Padmanabh Goswami and Dinesh Goswami, and Rishabh, a student of the Sandipani Muni charity school who befriends Sean Fletcher in the film.
As Sean Fletcher went on his journey, the small crew, shooting from April to May 2011, had their own transformative experience.
“We had to leave our house at 4:00am to reach our destination before sunrise, and then we had 2 or 3 hours to shoot, because by 8:00am, the sun was burning,” Shyam says. “Often, when we got to a location, within a couple of minutes the locals would gather around, staring, standing in front of the camera, asking us to take their picture, and it became impossible to film.”
It wasn’t all hardship. Other experiences revealed the Brijabasis’ overwhelming generosity. In one scene in the film, Fletcher is literally pulled into a random house and served lunch by complete strangers – an experience that Shyam Gopal and Vijaya Radhika had themselves in real life.
“We were just wrapping up filming and running to our car to get out of the heat, and somebody started calling us,” Shyam says. “We thought they were asking us to take their picture. But the next thing we knew, we were in a home packed with 15 or 20 people – aunts, grandpas, grandmas – drinking ice cold glasses of buttermilk and eating rotis fresh off the fire. They were simple, but made with a special ingredient – love. And we realized, just sitting and eating with those people was capable of transforming us.”
As well as the Best Shorts Competition, Reconnection has also been submitted to Sundance, Raindance, the Toronto Independent Film Festival, The Indian Cine Film Festival in Mumbai, and the Leeds International Film Festival in the UK among others.
Shyam Gopal and Vijay Radhika hope to give their film, which they are gearing towards a broad audience, some exposure through these festivals. They then plan to secure wide distribution for it through cable channels and video on demand sometime in November.
Next, they’re looking to expand their team and set up a production house dedicated to spiritual cinema. They already have a script for a full-length feature film in pre-production.
And the journey all started in Vrindavan.
“In the film, our spiritual master B.B. Govinda Swami says, ‘Vrindavan is a state of consciousness,’ and ‘The only reason to leave Vrindavan is to share it with others,’” Shyam Gopal recounts. “We got lucky when he showed Vrindavan to us. It was a long process from curiosity to surrender to heart changing experience. But it was our gratitude that kept us moving through these years of filming. Gratitude and desire to share it with others, hoping that Vrindavan will change their hearts too, because it has something that we all lack.”
As Sean Fletcher says in a quote that bookends Reconnection, “People can change you. Places can change you. Some places you search out to find. Others have a way of finding you.”
To stay up to date on news about Reconnection, such as private limited screenings and an exclusive online premiere, follow fb.com/ReconnectionFilm.
If you are a filmmaker and want to find out more about Shyam Gopal and Vijay Radhika’s production house, please contact them at VrindavanExperience@gmail.com.