Milk and Opium (DOODH AUR APHEEM)
Written and Directed by Joel Palombo
Hindi with English subtitles
reviewed by Candy Campbell


In MILK AND OPIUM, filmmaker Joel Palombo escorts us to a set right out of the Arabian Nights. Starting with a small village in the desert of norththwest India, in the state of Rajasthan, outside the ancient carved sandstone walled Fort surrounding the city of Jaisalmer. (And what a difference film makes over dv ! You can almost smell the air and taste the food.)

The story is part reality-show ( people arrived or never showed up and events happened synchronistically) and part fiction, as the story morphs to fit the weather, the talent available, and the intrinsic wealth of possibilities that arise from the fact that the stars of the show are actual wandering minstrels.

Our hero here is a 14 year old Sufi boy named Swaroop. ( Swaroop Khan, who plays a version of himself, and wins our hearts in the process.) He wants to be a Manganyar singer like his uncle (Nizam Khan). Uncle Nizam reluctantly agrees to take him on one of his minstrel journeys and we get to tag along. But this is no Disney adventure. They walk, through the desert, on foot, to a village where Nizan’s two musician friends live . (Mohamad Khan, a real-life notable Manganyar vocalist and Manjoor Khan,recognized as one of the most outstanding Manganyar drummers.) Here, Swaroop is told to wait with the ancient grampa while the big guys smoke pot and chew some opium and plan their other trip. Not surprisingly, details get lost in the planning, but as the sun rises, they start off. There is a powerful lot of walking and less water-drinking and eating than what Americans would expect on such a trek. And this is just the first leg of a very loooong journey. One can not possibly guess where it will lead. Such musing make up a large part of the wonder and delight of this film. It is so different. While Palombo sticks to the three act form, the layers of sights, sounds and wanderings, even when tedious, serve this unusual subject.

Also featured is an Indian guitarist of great report, Deepak Castelino, who helped compose part of the score and some of the end vocals.

One of the exhilarating parts of attending a film festival is getting up close and personal with so many of the filmmakers. Joel Palombo lives in New Delhi and teaches high school fine art classes several months of the year. Naturally, as an artist, he has a need to express his view on what life reveals to him. He also has the need to challenge himself as an artist. He recalls that for some time he had an ‘itch’ to make a film, but he wasn’t sure about what. One day, he attended an Indian folk-music concert in Delhi and was so impressed by some of the talent, he rushed backstage to talk them into being in a film he hadn’t yet written. And that is how Joel Palombo became a filmmaker. Of course, that begs the question: what’s up for this year summer vacation?