Lakshmi and Me: A Review (Joe)

11 Aug

Sung Yeon and I went to view Lakshmi and Me, a short documentary by @@ last weekend.  We found it and the discussion held after to be a fascinating account of not only one slice of Indian life, but also of filmmaking as social commentary.  Some of my thoughts on film follows.

Our first glimpse of Lakshmi, whose name is featured prominently in the documentary’s title, is of her crouching body on the floor. Her prostrated form might otherwise be mistaken for someone at prayer.  But the furious, somewhat graceful sweeps of her hands do not appear like the stillness of contemplation. She draws wet arcs of soap and water upon a gleaming white tile floor.  Only her hands and arms, along with the back of her feet are we allowed to see in these first images.  Her face is as hidden to us the audience as her thoughts, her hopes, and her fears.

Lakshmi’s boss is Indian filmmaker Nashtha Jain.  As Jain chronicles Lakshmi’s life those features of her once hidden come sharply into view.  Yet the images of her living her life close to the ground, whether cleaning, sleeping, or eating, are pervasive.   The camera’s focus on the ground becomes a metaphor for Lakshmi’s condition, and the difficulty that we as the audience and Jain as the filmographer have in ever seeing her world as more than half.  Jain documents Lakshmi’s daily work, not only for her, but for other clients who seek the assistance of a maid.  Jain eventually meets Lakshmi’s family and documents a fascinating cultural ritual that is shall we say, not for the faint of heart.  Jain pries into Lakshmi’s love life and uncovers a forbidden interest of hers.  Halfway through the film, we discover Lakshmi has been missing for several weeks.  Her relationship has led to a pregnancy, the knowledge of which she kept from Jain.  The filmmaker is puzzled.  ‘Why not come to me?’ she asks in so many words.  But her question begs another in reply,  why should Jain’s self-proclaimed role as matron and protector allow her access to Lakshmi’s life?

Jain is not unaware of how her presence complicates the picture we have of Lakshmi.  In commentary available on the PBS website, she notes,

At the very outset, it was clear that I would not be an observer in this film. I was also one of the protagonists, and that raised the additional problem of self-representation. How do I film myself, especially as the director and the camera person?

There’s a reason this film is entitled Lakshmi and Me.  It is just as much, if not more so, about Jain as it is about her maid.  With Jain’s narration and careful selection of images, we get a deeper insight into the strictures of economic class and caste that pervade Indian culture.  At the same time, we see how the filmmaker eventually becomes their own best subject.  She is a perfect example of liminality in storytelling.  The documentary format puts her in the role of director, but her influence cannot be kept behind the camera.  We get very little sense of whether Jain operates inside or outside of the caste and economic systems which so circumscribe Lakshmi’s daily life.   Jain and Lakshmi are in a sense both liminal personalities who transcend the space created for them in this film.  They both inhabit the world of caste and class that is portrayed in the film, and yet much of their personality and character remains off screen and out of view.  In that sense, it appears Lakshmi is the more comfortable in this dual identity, this inbetween space.  In large part this is due to her more honest presentation of what she does and does not want to reveal about herself.  Meanwhile Jain seems genuinely unsure of her place in Lakshmi’s ongoin saga.  Once the narrator and questioner of this story, she eventually raises more questions about her own culpability, her own struggles with identity.  This documentary begins asking the question, who is Lakshmi, and it concludes with a new and equally interesting question, who is this “me”?

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