Despite The Gods: Penny Vozniak’s directorial debut follows the behind-the-scenes chaos of Lynch’s creature feature/fantasy Bollywood horror Hisss (2010), her failed B-movie venture about a shape-shifting and man-eating snake goddess. Over-budget and over-schedule, we follow Lynch as she has to relocate to Kerala, deal with hysterical Bollywood fans, film under extreme rain conditions, and weather all manner of culture clashes, all this while juggling single motherhood to her twelve year old daughter Sydney. What emerges is as much a portrait of the difficulties of manning an epic Hollywood-Bollywood production, as it is an insight into being a female director in a notoriously male-dominated industry. Released at a similar time to her spectacular cellar-horror Chained, Vozniak shines a light on this controversial and misunderstood director, and everyone’s falling in love with her.
Despite the Gods sits firmly in the film-about-a-film documentary genre (of which others include Lost In La Mancha (2002) and Burden of Dreams (1982)). Vozniak charts the ups and downs of Hisss, as her roving camera follows a chaotic crew in the maelstrom of Chennai, Mumbai and Kerala. This six million dollar co-production between Hollywood and Bollywood was never going to be easy – and the film becomes, in a manner that never feels clichéd, a journey of self-realisation for Lynch. The oh-so very many on-set disasters become a backdrop for Lynch’s mouthy and honest observations about film-making, love, sex and motherhood.
The daughter of David Lynch, Jennifer made her directorial debut with Boxing Helena, a box-office flop and fodder for multiple lawsuits, accusations of making misogynistic “torture porn” and a gong for Worst Director at the Golden Raspberry Awards. We see the demons of Boxing Helena and her father’s failed third flop with Dune stalking this teetering-on-the-edge production, although Lynch hints at many others. She talks candidly about the long hiatus after Boxing Helena, in which she dealt with addiction problems and depression and finding herself a single parent. Lynch touchingly mentions the aftermath of Dune’s failure, noting that he didn’t speak for a year. But Despite The Gods still shows us a director getting into her stride. Her joy at hearing of the critical success of Surveillance (2008) will be familiar to anyone who’s finally had a pat on the back for all their hard work.
Its clear that the snake-woman of Indian myth is something of a role model for Lynch’s pseudo-feminist tale: “I really liked the idea of a strong woman who just wasn’t going to take any crap”. And even after all manner of run-ins with striking staff and production managers who think they know better, Lynch doesn’t take any crap either. But the film is about two other women too – leading Bollywood star Mallika Sherawat (who stars as the prosthetic snake woman alongside Irfann Khan), and Sydney, who misses out on the start of school because the shoot overruns and there’s no-one else to look after her. With Mallika, we are afforded a brief if fascinating insight into the tribulations of being a famous Bollywood star in the industry. Dressed for the most part in very little, Mallika has faced threats and accusation for her liberal if challenging on-screen performances. We see her dishing it back to a demanding and often rude production team; in a particularly amusing scene, Mallika – barely visible behind a skin-tight prosthetic snake skin which she is asked to writhe around in while sticking out her bum, observes “how desperate this country is, how repressed these boys are”. Mallika, Jennifer and her young daughter Sydney are the trio who hold the film together, and we see the adventure through three sets of equally confused eyes.
Despite the Gods is a joy from start to finish. Vozniak brings out the madness of filmmaking, but also its colour and excitement, and like Lynch at the end, we come to realise that failure itself doesn’t really matter, if you find great things along the way.