Because the private is public: Turning home movies into documentaries

Scene from "Bare" (2006) by Santana Issar. Please click on this image to watch the full film.

Two little girls, sisters, are seated side by side and are prompted by their dad to sing “Happy Birthday” for him, while he films them for a home movie. The sisters happily oblige. The scene changes and we see footage of the two sisters and their parents at picnics, other birthdays, on a ship (the father is in the merchant navy), etc. Watching the scenes unfold, one after the other, the viewer is led to think that these are glimpses from the life of a happy family.

This perception changes when the conversations begin—telephone conversations recorded in 2006, which are played out against the backdrop of the 20-year old footage of “happy” family memories. These are telephone conversations between the sisters, Santana and Simran; between the mother and Santana; and between Santana and the father. These conversations reveal something totally contrary to what the images convey—that this is not a happy family unit. The parents have separated and the mother does not speak to the father, and Simran also does not speak to her father and wants to have nothing to do with him. Only Santana talks to her father. Sometimes. The reason for all this is the father’s alcoholism.

The above synopsis is of a film called Bare (2006, 11 minutes), directed by Santana Issar. I watched this powerful film as part of a screening of 9 films “of family footage and home movies” curated by Pankaj Kumar on 23 February 2011. These films were part of Cinema Satsang: The Curatorial Project Film Festival organised by the Katha Centre for Film Studies, in collaboration with the India Foundation for the Arts and Alliance Francaise de Bombay.

As curator, Pankaj divided these 9 films into 4 sections: (i) Home movies as genesis of explorations (Straight 8, The Dust, These Old Frames, and Grandad with a Movie Camera; (ii) Politics of home movies (Khoob Asti Afghanistan and I for India); (iii) “Happy” home movies and strange truths (Bare and Tarnation); and (iv) Conclusion: the way ahead (Phantom Limb). The films were screened in this order and the complexity of the use of family footage in the larger narrative of the documentary film increased as we progressed from film to film, and section to section to experience a range of amazingly simple to multi-layered, complex films. Bare was the 7th film to be screened that day, and the disturbing contrast and disjunct between the visual moving image and the audio track has ensured that this film has imprinted itself on my mind. That is the reason why I began my post with that film.

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Mumbai Lens: The new slums of Mankhurd

Mankhurd is an eastern suburb of Mumbai, accessed via the Harbour Line (where it is the last station in Mumbai before the Line crosses the Vashi creek bridge to enter Navi Mumbai) or via the Sion-Trombay/Panvel Road. Apart from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and the Anushaktinagar colony, most of the suburb comprises slums. Mankhurd is a good illustration for Mumbai’s other name, and a name I do not like—Slumbai !

Some years back, slum areas in Mankhurd started getting redeveloped (a process that continues even today), while in other vacant areas/reclaimed land in the suburb new buildings were constructed to house slum dwellers from across Mumbai under the Slum Rehabilitation Programme for the city.

The high-rise and the slums near Maharashtra Nagar, Mankhurd

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84 Charing Cross Road: A second-hand love affair

It was at a cousin’s wedding that an uncle gave me his copy of 84 Charing Cross Road with a crisp, “Read it. It’s good”. Now, I don’t know about you but long drawn-out weddings are not my cup of tea, and I always look for avenues to keep sane at such events. This book provided me with that perfect opportunity to escape from cope with the wedding festivities.

So, I read the book while getting my mehendi done, while helping my cousin’s trousseau to be packed, in the middle of the night under torchlight, when I couldn’t bear the collective grunts and snores of so many aunts in the hall we were sleeping in, between the many wedding ceremonies, etc. By reading a few pages at a time, I managed to finish the 100-odd pages of the book over 3 days and return it to my uncle. I was just in time to congratulate the newlyweds after the wedding ceremony, and then run out to try to obtain my very own copy of the book.

So what is 84 Charing Cross Road (by Helene Hanff) all about? I found the book’s blurb—an extract from its review in the Daily Telegraph—tantalising.

This book is the very simple story of the love affair between Miss Helene Hanff of New York and Messrs Marks and Co, sellers of rare and second-hand books at 84 Charing Cross Road, London. It is unmitigated delight from cover to cover.

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The lonely drinking water fountain

Once upon a time in Bombay (actually, this was about a 100 years back), there lived a man called Lowji Megji. He was a cotton merchant and ran a very successful business exporting cotton. He lived with his wife, mother, 5 sons, 1 daughter, and 4 servants in a large mansion in Bombay (Note: about a 100 years back, political correctness had not crept in, so I use the words “Bombay” and “servants” in this post).

Lowji Megji loved all his children, but he loved his daughter Kusumbala just a little bit more. Nobody minded this, as everyone who knew Kusumbala also loved her just a little bit more. She was a kind-hearted, happy and cheerful soul, who always spread joy wherever she went. She loved going with her father to his cotton godown and giving drinking water to the workers who loaded and unloaded the cotton bales. The workers too loved her a lot and would wait for her visits to the godown eagerly.

Unfortunately, such visits were rare as Kusumbala was a sickly child and prone to frequent bouts of some illness or the other. In her 13th year, her frail body could not withstand yet another bout of illness and she finally succumbed. The family was disconsolate and Lowji Megji devastated. He lost all interest in his business and if it hadn’t been for his faithful employees, he would have been ruined.

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Travel Shot: The Bored Woman of Gloucester Cathedral

August 1, 2009: The Bored Woman of Gloucester Cathedral

The trip to Gloucester Cathedral happened by chance. Our tour group was on its way to Wales from London and Gloucester was a pit stop for the bus driver to have a smoke and stretch his legs. Since we had made good time, our tour guide generously allowed us an hour in Gloucester and suggested either exploring the Gloucester docks, or visiting the Cathedral. I opted for the latter.

A 15 minute walk and a fast trot later I was at the beautiful Gloucester Cathedral admiring its beautiful architecture, graceful columns and stunning stained glass windows, Then suddenly the above relief caught my eye. I had a tough time controlling my laughter. In a place where one comes across expressions of piety, even severity, this bored “whatever” expression was a real eye-catcher ! The inscription for this rather quirky relief was in Latin, a language I do not know. All I could figure out was that it was a memorial for a person named “Margerie” who died in April 1623.

I tried to find out more about the “bored woman” on the Cathedral website, but not find anything there. In case you do come across any information on her, you will let me know, won’t you?

The Kala Ghoda Arts Festival: A metaphor for Mumbai

Tomorrow is the last day of Mumbai’s much-loved and much awaited annual Kala Ghoda Arts Festival (KGAF). The Festival is organised by the Kala Ghoda Association, a not-for-profit organisation, with the aim of “physically upgrading the Kala Ghoda sub-precinct and making it the Art District of Mumbai”. All events of the KGAF are held within a one kilometre radius of the Kala Ghoda area in South Mumbai.

The KGAF makes space for all kinds of arts and through its various components ensures participation of a very large cross-section of the population. According to the Festival’s website,

The Kala Ghoda Arts Festival is an expression of the inclusiveness of art where all gather in a joyous spirit of celebration of the finest talents producing momentous and uplifting work.

In its 13th year now, the KGAF 2011 had children’s events, workshops, literary events, heritage walks, film screenings, theatre, music, and dance performances, and a street festival as well. In addition to all these events, artists from across the country set up stalls to showcase and sell their products.

An art installation of a cow depicting scenes from "A Day in the Life of India"

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