Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The baby elephant in the room

I watched Aisa Yeh Jahan at a special screening in Pune. The Lost Plot, a very unique film club that screens movies in a rooftop bar in Aundh - it is just as romantic as it sounds - has been my favorite haunt in Pune for a while. Besides regular screenings of popular and classic films, and periodic mini-festivals, they try to promote small, little-heard-of films that don't get much attention in mainstream cinemas.

For the screening of Aisa Yeh Jahan, the cast and crew of "India's first carbon neutral film" was present at the club. In the later Q&A session, the director Biswajeet Bohra was very graceful when I questioned the mild misogyny in the film's treatment of Ira Dubey's character. 

There was another question I wanted to ask, but refrained of politeness - and has bothered me more every time I now think about it. It was about the character Pakhi, the preteen domestic help living with the Saikias, an Assamese family based in Mumbai.

I was reminded of Pakhi again today as I read this stirring article by Alex Tizon, the Pulitzer winning American journalist and child of first generation immigrants from Manila. He describes the family's relationship with Lola, a Philippine woman who traveled with the family from Manila to the States, and spent the major part of her life serving them. "I had a family, a career, a house in the suburbs," writes Tizon, describing his American dream, "And then I had a slave."

How different is Pakhi from Lola? If anything, she is younger. Sepia-tinted flashback in the films establish how the girl is separated from her mother at a young age, and pressed into service of a rich family in the village. The son of this family, along with his wife and toddler daughter, acquire this "domestic help" for their Mumbai home. Now by Mumbai standards, this nuclear family is as middle class as they come. Mr Saikia goes to office with a lunchbox. His wife works as a receptionist. Most Mumbai families of this sort can loathe afford a nanny, let alone a full time servant.

Unless that servant is a child herself. And comes as part of the package of owning lands back home. It is nowhere explicitly stated in the film whether the girl is paid a salary. It is explicitly stated however that she is uneducated, and the kindhearted Saikias - who defensively call her a member of a family in front of their Mumbai friends - display no intention of ever sending the girl to school. That is an exclusive privilege of the highborn Kuhu.

More disturbingly, at one point Mr Saikia beats this girl... well not really, because he's such a cuddly teddy bear who could never beat anyone, but he pretends to beat her, to appease his wife. Even though that "beating" is really just him making slapping sounds from inside the room, the disturbing implication is that in this house, beating a thirteen year old girl is considered legitimate.

What do you call this arrangement, if not slavery? In a film concerning itself with Big Issues like environment and the alienation faced by North Eastern Indians in big cities, this blatantly casteist practice within a North Indian family is completely ignored.

Before starting to write this post, I went through some of the reviews of this film available online. The film has received low ratings across the board, and mainly panned for its amateurish execution of a well meaning theme, and a scattered plot. Kymsleen Kholie who plays Pakhi receives acclaim for her work, and deservedly so. None of the reviews however, point at her arrangement with the Saikia family, or seem much perturbed by it.

Lola was a real woman, while Pakhi is fiction. The thing about fiction however is that it is often an extraction of many facts. The fact that such a character is so comfortably slipped into a story about human values and culture is telling. How common is it for the people behind this film to have see full time domestic help in their house, plucked from their family and village at a young age, denied education, made to sleep on the floor and bound to serve for life?

The recent disclosure by a Mumbai-based entrepreneur about his experience lending domestic help to film industry households tells us this is nothing new.

By the end of this film, things change, as they do in movies. Lessons are learned, hugs are exchanged, trees are planted - and Pakhi continues to live and serve as before. As symbolism goes, the well-meaning people behind this film have no intention to change the lives of people like Pakhi. They're destined to sleep on the floor and serve for life.

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