Following the immigrant trail – India Today

Following the immigrant trail – India Today

Knowing Her Place: sensitive portrayal

It’s the success story of the Indian expatriate in the US which today hogs much of the media coverage in India. Especially in its more recent romancing-the-NRI phase. Well groomed, with their perfect Colgate smiles and hair in place, they appear the picture of confidence which comes from having arrived. East and West, the twain have met quite comfortably in their person, thank you.

Seldom does the price of getting there – more like not getting there – or what’s going on behind those sunny smiles get so much media hype. The festival of feature films and documentaries made by Americans of Indian descent being screened this fortnight in Delhi and Bombay, goes a long way in filling those gaps.

Entitled “From India to America: New Directions in Indian American Film & Video”, the festival is being presented by the Smita Patil Foundation, the Indo-US Subcommission on Education and Culture and the Whitney Museum of American Art. These films – five features, 22 documentaries and short films – were shown at the Whitney Museum in October this year.

The portrait painted of the Indian abroad, in many instances the Innocents Abroad, is riveting – even though many of the films are painfully amateurish and self-consciously experimental. Home movie-ish really.

There are, of course, works by wellknown film makers such as Ismail Merchant (early works such as Mahatma and the Mad Boy and his Courtesans of Bombay as well as the more recent In Custody] and several films by Mira Nair, before and after Salaam Bombay. In fact, her earlier films about Indians adjusting to living between two worlds are fascinating precursors of what many Indians were to do later.

There’s also a charming comedy by David Rathod, West is West, a film about a young man’s pursuit of the Green Card in San Francisco, as well as Barry Alexander Brown’s Lonely in America, a romantic comedy about an Indian student’s quest of the American dream.

“The festival has unearthed a number of film makers who are using cinema to explore their identities.”

But the revelation of the festival is really the large number of young and emerging independent Asian American film makers who are using cinema to explore their indentities and chart the immigrant experience. Incidentally, they also offer a different prism to see contemporary America through what has long been a European prerogative.

Taken as a whole, the films are a kind of collective autobiography of Indians abroad – whether they are fresh immigrants, first or second generation Indians, of mixed parentage, or merely Indians on the back-to-the-roots trip.

The catchy acronym A.B.C.D. – America Born Confused Desi – says it beautifully. Many of the films are rather painful explorations of the process of integration into an alien host society. Among the more accomplished and gripping films (since the feature films were not previewed, they are not included in this article) is Indu Krishnan’s Knowing Her Place.

In the 40-minute video made a couple of years ago, Krishnan sensitively explores the “cultural schizophrenia” of Vasu, a Tamil housewife in Queens who is outwardly a picture of oriental calm, but within is undergoing an identity crisis so intense that she actually tries to kill herself a few weeks after one of the first interviews in the film. What is remarkable is that without being voyeuristic the film shows us what is happening internally to the protagonist.

The film, made over a period of about three years, takes us back and forth from Madras to Queens, as Vasu shuttles between the two worlds. In Madras, with her mother and grandmother and friends, she slips easily into a heavy Tamil accent – even her body language and vocabulary change.

In the States, it’s not only the ease with which she speaks with a typically East Coast accent, it’s her thought process, and attitude which undergo a dramatic change. Vasu was born and spent the first 12 years of her life in the States, after which she returned to Madras. Married at 16, she went back to the US with her husband who is a professor of mathematics.

The am-I-Indian-or-American question, which seems to have been her undoing and is always on her mind now, began to intrude upon her external life much later. And what gives this film its moments of great drama are the family scenes, especially a thanksgiving dinner with her husband and two teenaged sons who are oblivious of what is happening to her.

Taken for granted as the silent provider, she is even looked down upon as still being concerned with tradition and yoked emotionally to the home country.

There must be hundreds of expatriate mothers of teenaged children like Vasu who somewhere in their being feel Indian and cannot reconcile themselves to their American children.

Meena Nanji’s 15-minute video, Voices of Morning, also probes what happens to an Asian woman in America. In this case, it is really the predicament of second generation Asian women caught between tradition (tyranically conservative families and religion) and the “liberal world” outside. But too self-conscious and over reliant on special effects and the unlimited possibilities of video, the film doesn’t achieve much.

Similarily, Taxivala, a 45-minute video by Vivek Renjen Bald, never really gets to its destination because of the video experiments and the eccentric camera of its maker. A fascinating subject – the lives and experiences of South Asian tax- drivers in New York city – is almost lost because of the cinematic treatment.

For long moments of the film, we only have a taxi meter’s eye view (and it’s not even turning) of the city, often without the face of the driver. Bald, like many of the other young film makers, seems to be using his camera to find out more about himself as an Indian American (his mother is Indian).

Unlike Krishnan’s film, Bald is looking at the new immigrant – those who came in the ’80s, unlike other earlier migrants who came to America as professionals. The film looks at the racism of white Americans and of the police.

Bald (above); and Rathod’s West is West pursuing the American dream

But the interesting aspect is the uneasy relationship between Indians and blacks who feel that Indians are prejudiced against them. A subject that Nair examined at length inMississippi Masala,which will also be screened.

Balvinder Dhenjan’s What Are Our Women Like in America and Keshini Kashyap and Dharini Rasiah’s A Crackin the Mannequin: South Asian Working Women in America also show the immigrant experience, though there is too much of the workshop feel to their short videos.

Dhenjan’s film is about a young Punjabi agog in the sexual jungle in an American city, but the humour is a bit forced. The other film is a potentially fascinating one about how young second generation women look at their mothers who are moulded into their roles.

Prem Kalliat emerges as one of the film makers to watch. His journey is not the inward one in America, but to India. Not quite the back-to-roots exercise though. He looks at esoteric aspects of India in two films. Injareena: Portrait of a Hijda, the camera seems to have penetrated into the very secret world of the community of transvestites and hijdas in Bangalore.

Kalliat follows Suresh, a young transvestite from his village in Trivandrum, where he is a pleasant young, jeans-clad man devoted to his family and called father by his nephews and the “Haman”, his family of hijdas in Bangalore.

What is astounding about the film is the footage, the complete lack of inhibition of the hijdas. They allow themselves to be filmed completely naked: there’s an unforgettable sequence of one of them disrobing and then dancing while explaining what it is to be a woman.

They are shown performing their initiation rites. It’s almost as if the film makers had been totally accepted in the community. There’s even a scene showing a bit of their business: giving massages and a bit of “enjoyment”.

“Even though many of the films are quite amateurish, the overall portrait of the Indian abroad is riveting.”

Kalliat’s other short film, Kalari Clan, is about women who practice the ancient martial art of Kalari Payattu, which was traditionally the preserve of men. Now used as a form of self-defence and a sort of feminist statement, the film also delves into the myths surrounding this and includes interesting clips from a film based on the first woman to practise Kalari Payattu.

All together, the films show the other side of the American dream, and in the end one is tempted to conclude that the twain do meet, though uncomfortably, in the Indian abroad.

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