13 January 2019

Blue-sky filmmaking

My Mirror column:

The late Mrinal Sen’s career took off with a 1959 film, Neel Akasher Neechey, a rare portrait of a Chinese protagonist in Indian cinema.

Mrinal Sen’s directorial career started with a hiccup. Raat Bhore, starring Uttam Kumar and Sabitri Chatterjee as the lead pair, was released the same year as Sen’s contemporary Satyajit Ray released Pather Panchali (1955). But while Pather Panchali made Ray the immediate toast of the town (and the world), Raat Bhore sank at the box office and was panned by the critics.

In 1959, however, Mrinal Sen made a second film,
Neel Akasher Neechey, and this one gained him both popular approval and acclaim from high places. Even here, though, Sen was not the first choice as director. The singer-composer Hemanta Mukherjee (known to Hindi film-viewers as Hemant Kumar) was starting his own film production house and initially approached Sen only to write the script. It was only later, when he had disagreements with the director he had chosen, that Hemanta decided to offer the job to Sen.

Based on a piece called ‘Cheeni Feriwalla’ from the famous Hindi writer Mahadevi Varma’s book Smriti ki Rekhayein (Lines of Memory), the film traces the unexpected connection that develops between an itinerant Chinese peddler and a Bengali housewife who is an active participant in Gandhi's Civil Disobedience Movement. The treatment of the central relationship tugs unabashedly at heart-strings – Mrinal Sen later looked back at it as embarrassingly sentimental. But the thematic content is interesting even today.

Neel Akasher Neechey
 opens in the Kolkata of 1930, and in bringing that historical-political context to life with shots of newspaper headlines, nationalist speeches, and street-corner protests, Sen shows glimpses of the full-frontal political filmmaking that he would later be identified with. The first time we see our protagonist, Kali Banerjee as Wang Lu, he is but a blip on a screen dominated by a horde of schoolboys chanting, “The policeman’s stick, we don't fear it!” The city is in the grip of nationalist fervour, and the Chinese street seller is caught unawares. But the policeman who grabs him also lets him go almost immediately, recognising an outsider even as they both speak in Hindustani – as Calcuttans used to call the hybrid Hindi of the city’s streets, a lingua franca likely shaped by the Bengali speaker’s inability to handle the high genderedness of Khari Boli Hindi, and spoken by the polyglot city of Biharis and Anglo-Indians and Armenians and yes, the Chinese.

Among the first interactions the film shows between Wang and the locals is another troupe of children following him in the streets, yelling, “Here comes the Chinaman, he’ll take you away!” The scene offers up the first of the urban myths that seem to follow the foreigner in India. One little girl tries to stop the other kids, but even her childish sweetness is based on the belief that if you call a Chinaman a Chinaman, you’ll turn into one yourself, conjuring up what is to her clearly a horrifying vision (“Chinaman ke Chinaman bolle, shobai Chinaman hoye jabe”). Another weird Chinaman myth is provided by a household help called Haran, who claims they save their ill-gotten gains as gold teeth.

The exchange between Wang and the little girl evokes another important film of the period, Kabuliwala, which was made in Bengali in 1957 and in Hindi in 1961. Based on Tagore’s 1892 short story, it was also centred on a man from a distant country who walks the streets of Calcutta selling things. And sure enough, this is borne out by what happens next. Where the Afghan Kabuliwala saw his far-away daughter in the figure of little Mini, Sen’s lonely Chinese-silk-seller begins to see his long-lost sister in Basanti, the Bengali bhadramahila whose colloquial use of “bhai” Wang hears literally.

The sister-brother theme is, of course, one that has particular resonance in Bengali cinema, from Pather Panchali’s Durga and Apu to Ritwik Ghatak's Subarnarekha and Meghe Dhaka Tara. But here Sen uses it to a broader effect, suggesting a bond of kinship across class and language and country. He even brings in the rakhi-tying that was adopted by Bengal’s Swadeshi movement to produce a ritual bond between communities.

Calcutta’s Chinatown appeared in several big Hindi films of the period, notably Howrah Bridge (1958) and Chinatown (1962), both made by Shakti Samanta. But it served primarily as a setting for illegalities, with the depiction of the Chinese community stopping at Helen singing ‘Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu’ and Madan Puri as a Chinese villain named John Chang. In Neel Akasher Neechey, that depiction feels more substantial: the Tiretta Bazar ghetto where Wang lives, the Chinese temple where he once prays, the dhaba where a mix of locals and Chinese men eat, the latter eating their rice with chopsticks from a bowl. Together with a running stereotype of all Chinamen being involved in the opium trade, Sen creates a vivid picture of life in Calcutta as a Chinese alien.

And yet, in what might be the film’s most wonderful exchange, when the Swadeshi khadi-wearing woman tries to tell the Chinese man she doesn’t wear foreign stuff, he insists he is not a foreigner: “Eyes not blue, not foreigner, Chinaman!” Released in the era of Panchsheel, the film’s unspoken message of Indians and Chinese as being on the same side of a colonial divide was much appreciated by Nehru, who told Sen: “You have done a great service to the nation.”

It is a sad comment on how little faith our state has in our people that declining Sino-Indian relations after 1962 led the same film to be banned, albeit briefly.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 13 Jan 2018.

7 January 2019

My Movies of the Year - II

My Mirror column:

A year-end list of the films I most enjoyed in 2018, in no particular order. The second of a two-part column.

A still from Pawel Pawlikowski's Cold War

Last week, I wrote about my favourites among the Hindi movies released in 2018. This week, I’m going a bit more eclectic. The films below aren’t from any particular place, language or industry. All they have in common is (a) they came out in 2018 and (b) I really liked them.

The Gold-Laden Sheep and the Sacred Mountain: Ridham Janve’s film is an absorbing almost mystical, journey into the upper reaches of the Himalayas. As Arjun the shepherd (played by a real-life Gaddi shepherd, also called Arjun) takes his flock in search of pasture, we find ourselves immersed in the starkness and beauty of the mountains. Janve taps into the differential rhythms of time up there — the moss gleaming in the sun, the mist moving over the valley, a glacier-fed stream that can go from a gentle drizzle to a raging waterfall in minutes — as well as the sounds of this particular silence: a screeching hawk, a pitifully bleating lamb. This is filmmaking as distant from a tourist brochure as it is possible to be. One comes away with the thought that nature is effortlessly grand and vast and mysterious; it is only humanity that needs to strain to be epic. 

Aga: Milko Lazarov’s film also sets out to convey the awe-inducingness of the natural world through human protagonists who still live essentially in its embrace. An old Inuit couple live in a yurt somewhere in the endless icy expanse of the Arctic. The old man (named Nanook in a clear reference to Robert Flaherty’s early cinema classic) sets out each day with his dog and his sled, hoping to find an animal to hunt or a fish far below the ice. The old woman keeps house: cooking fish, skinning a fox, stitching a cap out of fox-fur. It is as if they are the only people on earth. But Lazarov takes a more tragic view of where the human relationship with nature is at. The mine we see at the end of the film lays bare all modernity's claims to being civilization. 

Up and Down and Sideways: Completing my trio of humans-in-nature films from 2018 is Anushka Meenakshi and Iswar Srikumar’s delightful exploration of the community songs people sing as they work in the rice terraces of Phek, Nagaland. As the voices of men and women in one corner of a rice field meld with the voices rising from another, we begin to understand how labour is interwoven with love, love with loss, and monotony with music. This is a documentary that shows much more than it tells, and it is beautiful.

Kaala: Pa Ranjith’s second film with Rajinikanth is one of the most inspiring things I saw this year, taking on the insidious rhetoric of Swachh Bharat with as much glee as the Brahminicalness of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Unafraid to mix animation and hip-hop with the politics of land, or jokey drunken scenes with epic gangster violence, Ranjith channels the superstar's superstardom into a brilliantly energetic, superbly entertaining film that is nothing short of a call for Dalit revolution. It is also, of course, a deliberate Ambedkarite subversion of that other film about a vigilante Tamil don in Dharavi: Mani Ratnam’s 1987 Nayakan

Cold War: Pawel Pawlikowski's involving romance unfurls over a few decades of Polish history, taking its two talented musical protagonists from a rural setting chosen for the nationalising of folk traditions to the smoky bars of the Western world. The beautiful people, the lovely black and white photography (just as effective as in his 2013 outing, Ida), the grand departures and fiery betrayals all make for a deliciously satisfying film that has no compunctions about evoking our nostalgia, cinematic and otherwise. 

Dovlatov: Set in a wintry 1970s St. Petersburg, Aleksei German Jr’s film is a superbly deadpan, unexpectedly moving biopic of a Russian writer whose refusal to compromise with the Soviet regime’s requirements for artistic patronage often seems more aesthetic than political. But of course, Sergei Dovlatov, who had to leave his country, was also of Jewish-Armenian heritage. Dovlatov is atmospheric and filled with literary references, but never ponderous: the doggedly unpersuadable writer hero, asked to get into a car at the end, says shortly, “I won’t fit.” It feels like a sad love letter to a time and a type.

Lemonade: A non-flashy, affectingly-acted portrait of a Romanian woman trying everything she can to stay on in America with her little son, Ioana Uricaru’s feature debut has harrowing things to say about two of the year’s hot-button topics: immigration and sexual harassment. 

The Tale: A nuanced and powerful examination of sexual abuse that I’ve written about in these pages, Jennifer Fox’s autobiographical film was a long time in the making. Having come out in the year of #MeToo, it felt like one of the most significant takes on the distressing links between sexual liberation and sexual harassment.

Slut in a Good Way: A sparkling French-Canadian comedy whose original name is Charlotte a du fun (meaning Charlotte Has Fun), Sophie Lorain’s second feature clearly didn’t want to advertise itself to home audiences as the thoughtful feminist film it is. But the complicated love lives of three teenage girls make for a wonderful lesson in sexual politics, social double standards, and the evasive dream of freedom. Bonus: a Bollywood soundtrack that isn’t anything to do with anything but fits strangely and madly in.

6 January 2019

Obituary: Mrinal Sen 1923-2018


Filmmaker Mrinal Sen, who died on Dec 31 at the age of 95, never stopped experimenting.

Mrinal Sen made his first film in 1955, the same year his contemporary Satyajit Ray made his illustrious debut. Pather Panchali made Ray an instant sensation. Sen’s Raat Bhore 
– competing in the cinemas of Calcutta with Shree 420, Nagin, Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje, two Dilip Kumar films, the Suchitra Sen starrer Bhalobasa, as well as Pather Panchali – sank without a trace.

It took him until 1959 to make a second movie. Neel Akasher Neechey, about an immigrant Chinese peddler’s bond with a nationalist Bengali woman, was a hit, garnering praise from both Jawaharlal Nehru and the Communist Party. Though he later expressed embarrassment about its sentimentality, it launched a remarkable career. It got Sen a producer for his third film, Baishey Shravana. A dark take on the human condition set against the backdrop of the 1943 Bengal Famine, Baishey earned plaudits in London and Venice. It also caused some controversy at home, partly because it used the hallowed date of Tagore's death anniversary the 22nd of the Indian month of Shravanaas its title, while being starkly, deliberately un-Tagorean. Mrinal Sen had arrived.

Between 1960 and 2002, Sen directed 25-odd features, winning awards nationally and abroad, from Karlovy Vary to Cannes. Unlike the perfectionist Ray, with whom he had a complicated relationship, Sen remained the eternal experimenter, making films as various as the devastating Akaler Sandhane and the cheeky Bhuvan Shome. He could handle adivasi-colonial drama (Mrigayaa) as comfortably as the contemporary politics of Naxalism (the Calcutta Trilogy: InterviewCalcutta 71 and Padatik) or middle class morality (Ek Din Pratidin). Sen's films were as likely to draw on the headlines as a personal experience in the city's streets, like witnessing a serpentine queue for a RBI jobs in Dalhousie Square (this was the germ of Chorus). He was avidly political but toed no party line, and though a lover of literature, could sometimes seem more interested in the episodic film form. Even when he drew on the Indian literary greats, he was unafraid to alter them: in his Oka Oorie Katha, Premchand's chilling tale 'Kafan' became even more nihilistic, while also moving from an Uttar Pradesh setting to a Telugu-speaking one; his hauntingly evocative Khandahar transported Premendra Mitra's classic 1930s story 'Telenapota Abishkar' beautifully into the 1980scomplete with a photographer protagonist.

Born in 1923 to a lawyer in Faridpur (now in Bangladesh), Sen moved to Calcutta in 1940 to attend Scottish Church College. His subject was physics, but politics and literature drew him more. Dipankar Mukhopadhyay's fine 1995 biography suggests a voracious mind soaking up all he could from the city's cultural and intellectual spaces. After graduating, jobless and hard-up, he discovered the Imperial (now National) Library, where he spent 10 hours a day for five years, teaching himself many things, including cinema. He engaged in the vibrant Marxist addas of the time, watched plays at the Indian People’s Theatre Association (meeting Ritwik Ghatak there), and became a regular at the Calcutta Film Society formed in 1947 by Ray and Chidananda Dasgupta, though he couldn’t afford the fee.

Sen’s career had a lifelong openness. New routes excited him more than the well-trodden path, even if this meant losing his way occasionally. Inspired by watching The 400 Blows in Bombay in 1965, for example, Sen adopted the French New Wave’s jump cut, voiceover, stills and freeze frames into his next film, Akash Kusumfamously receiving brickbats in The Statesman, and triggering an infamous public spat with Ray. He dared mix up a Manto story with Tagore's 'Hungry Stones', and then cast the Hindi film star Dimple Kapadia in the resulting Bengali film (Antareen). Even when making a quietly accomplished film like Ek Din Pratidin, in which a young woman's delayed return from work becomes the vortex of social hypocrisy, Sen retained his agent provocateur persona, refusing to answer viewers who agitatedly demanded to know what 'actually happened'.

His politics could be fearlessly direct. He was thrilled with a German critic’s words about Calcutta 71: “This is a film which is not afraid to be taken as a pamphlet.” But he would never do it because it was expected of him. In later years, when asked why the dead servant boy’s father never slaps the callous, casteist employers in his masterful Kharij, Sen apparently said, “He did. He slapped all of us. Didn’t you feel it?”

We did, Mr Sen, we did.

A shorter version of this piece was published in India Today magazine, in the 14 Jan 2019 issue.

5 January 2019

Book review: The Scent of God

I reviewed The Queen of Jasmine Country for India Today:

Poet Sharanya Manivannan's novel on the coming of age of the saint-poet Andal is lovingly researched and fiercely imagined.

Sharanya Manivannan is a poet at heart. She has published two books of poetry (Witchcraft and The Altar of the Only World), of course. But her prose, too, is ceaselessly lyrical. It's best not to approach The Queen of Jasmine Country like a regular novel, therefore.
Sure, there are richly drawn characters and a narrative, if not precisely a plot, but one keeps wanting to stay and re-read, not move along. The writing demands sensory immersion, making this slim 143-page novel a deliciously slow read. Each paragraph is a time capsule of flavours and smells and visions that will transport the attentive reader into a world lovingly researched and fiercely imagined.
In the town of Puduvai, in 9th century Tamil Nadu, a young girl named Kodhai describes the year she turned 16, acquiring both a sexual self and the powerful poetic voice that would make her immortal as the saint-poet Andal. Bhakti is nothing if not personal, and when we meet Kodhai's adoptive father, Vishnuchittan, he has already departed from the intellectualised religiosity of his Brahmin heritage to walk that path. As Kodhai puts it: "My father, the son of a priestly teacher, wanted only to knot garlands for his god and to sing to him." And later: "When he closed his eyes, verses came to him whole, and in them he loved his lord like a mother does her child."
Kodhai follows her father, in both her life and her poems, creating an even more intimate relationship with the divine. The first time she wears Vishnuchittan's garland for the lord, she is a child, playfully transgressing the boundaries between sacred and profane. But then the lord chides her father for chiding her, and the child's pleasure grows into a full-blown adult attachment, body merging with soul: "I became the consort of that god who wants only to be draped by a garden-fresh garland that has first belonged to me."
Manivannan is not the first Indian writer in English to explore the sensual possibilities of bhakti. Girish Karnad's striking play Flowers (also about a garland-making priest) and Kiran Nagarkar's marvellous Cuckold (about Mirabai) come to mind. But Jasmine Country travels in a world of women. Kodhai's neighbour, young as herself, is married into wretchedly normal wifehood: "I have seen her mouth thin as a line in the sand, her hand over her belly almost a fist." Meanwhile, Kodhai keeps the pavai nombu vows with the cowherd women, praying for a lover to surpass all lovers.
The flame of Kodhai's erotic yearning makes her like other women, and simultaneously distinguishes her from them. "I have been denied what should come to all in the material world, and I want to transcend it. But I also want its deepest ecstasy. I do not know how else I will survive." Like Andal herself, this is a rare and incandescent book.

1 January 2019

My Movies of the Year - I

My Mirror column:

A year-end list of the films I most enjoyed in 2018, in no particular order. The first of a two-part column. 

The season of lists is upon us, and so here I am with mine. But a caveat before I begin: this is not, repeat not, a list of the best films of 2018. I cannot make that claim, simply because there are too many 2018 releases I haven't yet watched – in Hindi, in English, in the many Indian languages, and in countries across the world. Instead, if you will all indulge me at the end of a taxing year, here is a list of films that -- in my eyes -- did their bit to redeem 2018.
Let me begin with the Hindi films, in no particular order.

Anurag Kashyap began the year with a bang, giving us a zingy film about an aspiring boxer where all the real drama takes place outside the ring. The last time Kashyap used the poor-boxer-as-underdog-hero trope, Ranbir Kapoor's performance bit the dust along with the massive misguided missile that was its vehicle, Bombay Velvet. This time, the superb Vineet Kumar Singh (who is also the originator of the script) makes the sad-eyed struggler at the film's heart as credible as the desperate New India that surrounds him. Singh's performance as Shravan is more than matched by Jimmy Sheirgill's masterful turn as a casteist coach. Backed by a brilliant, addictive soundtrack, Kashyap crafts the caste and communal politics of Bareilly into a cinematic universe that is equal parts depressing dysfunction and joyful subversion.

Raazi: Meghna Gulzar's nailbiting thriller, based on the real-life tale of a Kashmiri Muslim woman who married into a Pakistani army family expressly to scout out state secrets, was also the most marvellously subversive Hindi film in ages, playing around with popular assumptions about gender, religion and nationalism at so profound a level that you barely know you're being played. The doll-like Alia Bhatt as a spying dulhan who sweetly smiles her way into the innermost circles of the military establishment is a masterstroke, playing not just on the anxieties of the India-Pakistan relationship but the familial anxieties around the otherness of all bahus in all sasurals. Raazi also gives us a rare burka-clad heroine who needs no saving (unlike say, the two Muslim female characters in the otherwise praiseworthy Lipstick Under My Burkha, or the award-winning 2016 short film Leeches), and a rare India-Pakistan romance that is based on mutual respect for each other's patriotism. 

Mulk: Anubhav Sinha's response to the growing representation of India's Muslims as the enemy within is a moving portrait of a middle class Banaras family that's vilified and harassed after one of its members turns out to have perpetrated a terrorist attack. Rishi Kapoor, one of those lucky male stars to get his best roles after 50, is wonderful as the portly, bearded, devout Murad Ali Mohammad, who is suddenly reduced from the respected neighbourhood Vakeel Sahab to a man in the dock as a member of a hated community. Less feted but crucial to the film's sense of tragedy is Manoj Pahwa's superb portrayal of Murad's younger brother Bilal: a not-so-clever man whose absence of judgement can appear, in a courtroom and a country arraigned against him, as the presence of guilt. Mulk etches the ordinary mixedness of both mohalla and family with warmth and lightness, but its extended courtroom sequences are a bit overwrought. But given the bigotry tearing us apart, this is the bludgeoning we need.

 Director Amar Kaushik and scriptwriters Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK (themselves directors, of Shor in the City fame) have crafted a rare creature: a Hindi genre film that subverts gender stereotypes while being clever enough to never be preachy. Stuffed with great comic turns (of which Rajkummar Rao's ladies tailor hero and Pankaj Tripathi's local faux-historian are the highlights), Stree combines the chills and thrills of a small town ghost story with effortless humour. Kaushik doesn't shy away from laughter in any direction, embracing both situational goofiness and the perfectly positioned political joke: a line about the ghost being able to identify people by their Aadhar cards, or the cameo by Vijay Raaz in which we're told that the Emergency has never ended.

Sriram Raghavan returns to the screen with another film that proves his irreplaceability to contemporary Hindi cinema. The film's principal ingredients suggest a chef who's having a lot of fun: an attractive blind pianist, a fading Hindi film hero playing a version of himself, Tabu doing a brilliant riff on a character she has played before – Lady Macbeth. The performances are pitch-perfect for a film that is meant to keep us guessing: Ayushmann Khurrana is sympathetic but suave; the magisterial Tabu is somehow both controlled and manic. Add a sweet old woman who may not be that sweet, a nosy Parsi neighbour who gets her just deserts, and an even more nosy child who... let me not give it away – and you get a deliciously dark confection, with Raghavan's usual bonus layers for film buffs.

Badhaai Ho: Amit Ravindernath Sharma's film is a fine new addition to several growing genres: middle class comedies, Delhi films -- and most crucially, family films that want to talk about deep, dark, once-considered-top-secret topics, eg. sex, while making us giggle. Ayushmann Khurrrana as the son of a Northern Railways TT and Sanya Malhotra as his posh girlfriend are cute together, but Neena Gupta and Gajraj Rao walk away with the honours for the warmest, most winsome couple of Hindi cinema this year.

(To be continued next week)

23 December 2018

The work of home

My Mirror column:

Alfonso Cuaron’s exquisite portrait of 1970s Mexico places a maid at its centre, producing a film that is as stately as it is intimate, as harrowing as it is tender.

Not too far into Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, which released on Netflix on December 15, a man gets a much younger, slighter woman to carry his bags. It is only after the 20-year-old Cleo has, with some difficulty, dragged the heavy luggage out and lifted it into the car boot that the man of the house walks up, making an ineffectual offer of ‘help’. It’s as if it’s her luggage, not his.

What the scene really reveals, though, is how both master and servant see it as her job, not his.

It is a minor scene, but one that typifies the magisterial new work from the director of films as various as Y Tu Mama Tambien, Gravity and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: unobtrusively shot, exquisitely performed, and relentless in laying out the unquestioned social hierarchies that underpin our lives. Set in the early 1970s, in the Mexico City of Cuaron’s childhood, Roma takes us through a year or so in the life of an upper middle class family— but from the perspective of the household’s maid, who also doubles up as nanny to the four children.

It is a large and boisterous household, and Cleo and the other maid Adele are constantly on their feet: cleaning up after the dog, attending to the children, cooking the meals, washing and ironing and sweeping and scrubbing. In one of the film’s loveliest moments, one of the children lies down in the back courtyard, pretending to be dead. Cleo leaves the clothes she is scrubbing for a minute and joins him, the washed clothes on the line dripping gently onto them. “Hey, I like being dead,” says Cleo. For her, such a moment of quiet nothingness is exceptionally rare, and Cuaron marks that fact –without emphasis. There is no emphasis laid, either, on another moment that reveals the strangely mixed circumstances produced by domestic labour.

The whole family is on a sofa watching TV. Cleo hovers on the edges, serving, adjusting, half-watching. She is drawn into the circle by one of the children stretching an affectionate arm around her, but even as she seats herself tentatively on a floor cushion beside the sofa, the moment of pause is immediately interrupted by the mistress asking the maid to bring the master a tea.

But the mistress can also hug her departing husband with terrifying desperation in front of the maid; Cleo is to her as much of a harmless intimate as her own watching child. This is not a film that makes the mistake of treating people as good or bad, ugly or beautiful. Cleo must work non-stop, and she has little choice about anything —but as Cuaron shows consummately, this is simply the nature of things. The stratification is assumed, but it does not preclude affection.

Roma joins a growing body of films about the complexity of the relationship between domestic workers and bourgeois employers, especially children. Played with exceptional grace and gravity by Yalitza Aparicio, a non- professional actor whose own mother has worked in domestic service, the character of Cleo is based on Cuaron’s own childhood nanny Libo (to whom the film is dedicated).

Watching the scenes where Cleo lovingly wakes up each child individually reminded me of another great filmmaker’s recreation of his childhood— Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, in which the maid Maj tells the child Alexander that he can’t sleep in her bed tonight, “but you know you’re my sweetheart”. The effervescent Maj is, like Cleo, a mother-surrogate, as is Regina Case’s older, slightly frumpier Val in Anna Muylaert’s Sao Paulo-set The Second Mother (2015), Deanie Ip’s Ah-Tao in Ann Hui’s Hong Kong-set A Simple Life (2012), or Angeli Bayani’s Filipino nanny Teresa in Anthony Chen’s Singapore-based drama Ilo Ilo (2013).

All these films depict the hapless worker who enables the smooth functioning of her employer’s household, while spending years of her life forcibly away from her own. The nanny/housekeeper/cook is often beloved within the bourgeois household – but that home will never be really hers. And outside these homes, too, these women’s status is forever compromised. Across the world, the irreplaceable work they do seems tragically to make them ineligible for their own private lives. In Ann Hui’s superb film, the only time Ah Tao loses her equanimity is when an occupant of her old-age home says snarkily on being introduced to her, “That sounds like a servant’s name”. And in one of Roma’s most distressing scenes, Cleo’s feckless martial-arts-practicing boyfriend responds to her tentatively voiced claims on him by hurling at her the worst insult he can apparently imagine: “Fucking servant!”

Cuaron’s empathy does not stop with Cleo. We weep with the children’s grandmother as she nears a nervous breakdown in trying to get Cleo to hospital on a day of street riots. We feel the shared bond between Cleo and her mistress, both abandoned by cowardly men (this has shades of the ’80s Hindi films like Kamla and Arth).

But the film ends on a note of absolute clarity. The staircase Cleo must climb at the end of the film, at the end of each day, takes her very far away from the home she supposedly inhabits. It is a bridge to nowhere.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 23 Dec 2018.