17 February 2020

An influential girlhood

My Mirror column:

A capacious new film version of Louisa May Alcott’s classic coming-of-age tale will make you identify with the Little Women of the 19th century

Beth, Jo, Megan and Amy in a still from the new Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig.
In Greta Gerwig’s deliciously satisfying film adaptation of Little Women, the heroine Jo March starts to write a novel about herself and her sisters because she is no longer happy working on her more marketable stories of duels and dungeons. Her sister Beth likes it best of all her writings, but the publisher, a “Mr Dashwood”, is only persuaded to publish the book by the excited curiosity of his daughters.
In real life, though, it was a publisher called Thomas Niles who asked Louisa May Alcott to consider taking a break from producing such sensational thrillers as The Abbot’s Ghost, or Maurice Treherne’s Temptation, and write a “girls’ story”. Alcott’s initial response – perhaps unsurprising for someone whose fictional alter ego was the simultaneously bookish and tomboyish Jo – was an irritable entry in her diary: “Never liked girls, or knew many, except my sisters.” But Louisa May Alcott was a professional writer, practically the sole earning member of a family that had always been cash-strapped. She obliged the publisher, and Little Women was born.
And so we have the remarkable historical fact that a girl who had spent her entire girlhood liking “boys’ games and work and manners” (“I can't get over my disappointment in not being a boy,” Jo March tells her prettier, more feminine elder sister Meg early in the book) became the most widely-read chronicler of female adolescence in the modern English-speaking world. Little Women, first published in 1868, became a literary sensation, and its central figure Jo March became an inspiration to generations of young women – especially young women with artistic aspirations.

“I am sure she has influenced many girls, for she is not like most ‘real’ authors, either dead or inaccessibly famous; nor, like many artists in books, is she set apart by sensitivity or suffering or general superlativity; nor is she, like most authors in novels, male,” pointed out the great writer Ursula Le Guin, calling Jo “as close as a sister and common as grass”.

Gerwig’s screen version, with Saoirse Ronan’s achingly acute Jo at its centre, is powerfully concerned with how the girl who scribbled all night in the attic of her mid-19th century Massachusetts family home became the writer crafting stories for a living in the attic of a Manhattan boarding house. As with all adaptations, Gerwig's reveals her own preoccupations – her previous directorial effort Ladybird, a coming-of-age tale about awakening ambition and desire set in early 21st century California, also starred Ronan as a young woman caught between wanting to be someone and just wanting. “I'm so sorry I wanted more,” Ronan's Ladybird bursts out at her mother in one angry emotional scene. In Little Women, the relationship between Jo and her mother (Laura Dern, somewhat unconvincing as the too-good-to-be-true 'Marmie') is less fraught, but her frustration has a similar ring to it. “I'm so sick of people saying that love is all a woman is fit for!” Ronan's Jo exclaims, asking Dern why the world won't give women's souls and minds their due, rather than just their hearts.

Little Women
 is brilliant at delineating the travails of the single woman trying to make her own path, in a world in which few women have yet done so. Many of the reasons for Jo's false starts as a writer – the mistaking of the market's approval for success, the lack of clarity about what her talents might be good for – are about not having creative models.

But where Gerwig scores is in giving late 21st century viewers a sense of what it was like to be a not-wealthy woman in a 19th century society. Her superlative cast fleshes out all the possible paths: the feisty, opinionated woman who could perhaps live by her wits (but under a male pseudonym); the quiet one with musical talent but not enough confidence to play for anyone but family; the one pretty enough to get to a ball but weak enough to let richer girls give her pet names; the realist who knows that her talents won't be enough to get her the life she wants. Between the drily unpredictable Aunt March (Meryl Streep channelling her inner Maggi Smith marvellously) and the pugnacious Amy (Florence Pugh making it hard to dismiss a character I grew up annoyed with), the film proffers a hard-headed economic context for the age-old romantic fictions written by men. No matter what their talents and abilities, women in Alcott's era were socially barred from improving their finances by almost any means other than marriage. Consequently, marriage may have been a romantic proposition for men, as the brutally frank Amy says to Laurie, but it was an economic decision for women.

Marriage was an economic decision in fiction, too. Alcott never married herself, and her intention was to have Jo stay single (remember, this is the same Jo who proposed that Meg run away from her own wedding). “[B]ut so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn’t dare refuse & out of perversity went & made a funny match for her,” Alcott wrote to a friend. Alcott paired Jo off with a stout, 40-year-old German professor called Friedrich Bhaer. The new film version has Friedrich stay accented and slightly awkward – but makes him young and handsome. I guess Gerwig decided Jo wanted more – and now she could have it.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 16 February 2020.

The Art of Dress in Isherwood's Berlin

My Shelf Life column for the website The Voice of Fashion looks at literature through the prism of clothes. 

This month, it's about people living on the edge in a city turning Nazi: Germany at the end of the Weimar era in Christopher Isherwood's much-adapted Goodbye to Berlin.

“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”

So wrote Christopher Isherwood in 'A Berlin Diary (Autumn 1930)' -- the first of the six interlinked stories that made up his 1935 book Goodbye to Berlin, a brilliant document of a city turning Nazi, a world changing shape before one's eyes.

Isherwood was both stylist and storyteller, gifted with an authorial voice that convinced you that things happened exactly as he wrote them, even as he categorically forbade readers from assuming that his sparkling characters were “libellously exact portraits of living persons”. Whether Sally Bowles and her many friends and lovers ever walked the decadent streets of 1930s Berlin, Isherwood's “camera” kept them running in readers' minds long after. Over the next several decades, as Goodbye to Berlin was adapted first into a play called I Am A Camera, then into a Broadway musical, and later the brilliant 1972 Bob Fosse film Cabaret, they shapeshifted, acquiring new nationalities, sometimes new names and new emotional lives.

Sally Bowles, for instance, went from being the 19-year-old daughter of a Lancashire mill owner who sings at an arty bar called The Lady Windermere to an older American cabaret dancer with daddy issues (the father who's “practically an ambassador” never actually shows up). Sally's rich lover, who in the original story was an American called Clive became, in Bob Fosse's film, a married German called Maximilian. The book's narrator, Chris, became Brian in the film, his relationship with Sally going from platonic to not.

Christopher Isherwood (centre) with the poets WH Auden (left) and Stephen Spender (right)
Among the things that stayed constant, though, was the crucial role of clothes. In what might now be seen as a predictable trait for a gay man, Isherwood paid attention to what people wore. And his characters dressed well for members of a 1930s demimonde. Or perhaps precisely for that reason. So we meet Sally first “in black silk, with a cape over her shoulders and a little cap like a pageboy's stuck jauntily on one side of her head”: befittingly theatrical, aided by cherry lips and emerald green nail polish. Meanwhile Sally and Chris's common friend Fritz Wendel has a “usual coffee party costume” that evokes summer even when it is cold and grey: “thick white yachting sweater and very light blue flannel trousers”.

Clothes are the first external sign of the self in this world – and looking respectable can take you a long way. For Frl. Schroeder, the landlady of Chris's lodging house, that means having her “flowered dressing gown pinned ingeniously together, so that not an inch of bodice or petticoat is to be seen”. For Chris, it is keeping his overcoat on because it hides the stain on his trousers. In Cabaret, Fritz surreptitiously pulls his coat-sleeve down to cover his frayed cuffs.

More than most people, Sally Bowles understands the value of looking fine. She constantly performs an exaggerated femininity – at the club, but also in life. And yet under all the high drama lies a childish make-believe, and you realise that her primary performance is for herself. She paints her toenails because it makes her feel sensual. During one of her frequent break-ups, she and Chris spend a lot of time sitting on benches. People stare at Sally “in her canary yellow beret and shabby fur coat, like the skin of a mangy old dog”, while she only thrills to the thought of “what they'd say if they knew that we two old people were to be the most marvelous novelist and the greatest actress in the world.”

Michael York as the English protagonist Brian with Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles in Bob Fosse's Cabaret (1972)
When she takes up with Clive, Sally accepts as gifts four pairs of shoes and two hats. And when Clive wants to get Chris a gift, she persuades him that six silk shirts would be better than a gold cigarette case. “Yours are in such a state,” she tells Chris with her usual cheerful brutality. In the book, these items of clothing are all that the two supposed gold-diggers get out of Clive – and 50 marks to be saved towards new nightdresses. The film makes everything more outré. Sally's rich lover Max actually gives the narrator that gold cigarette case – and lends him fancy clothes.

In Isherwood's last piece in the book, an ex-lodger called Fraulein Kost returns to visit the landlady in a fur coat and genuine snakeskin shoes, gaining Frl. Schroeder's grudging but real respect, despite her knowledge of her profession: “Well, well, I bet she earned them!... That's the one kind of business that still goes well, nowadays...”. In the film, it is Sally who acquires a new fur coat from Max – only to have to later sell it for an abortion.

Meanwhile, beyond Isherwood's charmed circle, other people are changing their clothes. Groups of young men in brown shirts and armed men in S.A. black uniforms have begun to attack solitary passers-by perceived as Communists. In one description that should resonate perfectly with present-day India, a young man is lynched and his eye poked out while dozens of people look on, and heavily armed policemen, “hands on their revolver belts...magnificently disregard the whole affair”.

On the eve of his return to England, the winter of 1933, Isherwood hears Frl. Schroeder talking reverently of 'Der Fuhrer' to the porter's wife. She voted communist last November, but she would probably hotly deny it. She is merely acclimatising herself, writes Isherwood, “like an animal which changes its coat for the winter.” Isherwood doesn't say it, but those animals are preparing for a long hibernation.

Published in The Voice of Fashion, 15 February 2020.

16 February 2020

Love, Lies and Videotape

My Mirror column:

How Francois Truffaut, who'd have been 88 this February, created an on-screen alter ego from 1959 to 1979, weaving happily between life and fiction

Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel in Love on the Run (1979), the last of Francois Truffaut's Doinel films.

There's a quick moment in Francois Truffaut's Love on the Run (1979) where the film's hero Antoine Doinel (a middle-aged but still childish version of the alter ego character Truffaut introduced with his first feature The 400 Blows) tells his son Alphonse that he must practice the violin. “What will happen if I don't?” asks the long-haired little boy. “You'll end up as a music critic,” says Antoine, poker-faced.

The filmmaker who arguably founded the French New Wave isn't undignified enough to milk the line for laughs. We hear it, we move on. But we do so knowing that Truffaut has made one of his frequent joking references to his own life – and as often the case with Truffaut, we don't quite know who the joke is on. Because Francois Truffaut, who was born 88 years ago this month -- on February 6, 1932 -- began his career in cinema as a critic.

After a troubled childhood that landed him in a reformatory, much like Antoine Doinel, Truffaut had come to the notice of legendary film critic Andre Bazin. Over eight years in the pages of the journal Cahiers du Cinema, he grew into an influential voice, critiquing the commercial French cinema of the time. Truffaut wanted people to stop thinking of good cinema as derived from literature or tied too strongly to a script. He called for much greater freedom, new technology such as the handheld camera, and improvisation that allowed for the visual qualities of cinema to be foregrounded.

Oddly for someone trying to emphasise the cinematic over the literary, Truffaut's references remained bookish. His famous “auteur theory” is essentially the claim that the director is the “author” (French: 'auteur') of a film just as the writer is of a book, his sensibility expressed by means of “the camera-pen” (French: 'le camera-stylo'). His filmic alter ego Antoine makes a shrine to the great French writer Balzac in his room as an adolescent. In Love on the Run, the last of the Antoine films, he works as a proofreader, having published one novel and speaking of writing another.

In another Truffaut film, The Man Who Loved Women (1977), the hero Bertrand seeks inspiration for writing an erotic autobiography in other memoirs. “How do you write about yourself? How did others do it?” he asks, coming to the conclusion that there are no rules: for any author, “his writing is as personal to him as his fingerprints”. Love on the Run, made two years later, is also full of conversations about fiction and autobiography, often scorning what might be seen as Truffaut's own artistic project by way of criticising Antoine's. “I'm not smart,” says Antoine's wife Christine, “but I know this: writing to settle old scores isn't art.” Another long and funny sequence involves Antoine's childhood girlfriend Colette (the relationship depicted in the short Antoine and Colette) becoming curious about his literary avatar. Having spied him after many years just as he's divorcing Christine, Colette buys his first novel, and quickly sees that Antoine's 'fiction' is really the story of his life, rewritten to show himself in a better light. Confronted, Antoine agrees mournfully.

“You write well,” says Colette, “But you will never be a real writer until you write something that is pure fiction.” Antoine jumps up excitedly and tells her the plot of his planned second novel, or rather its wonderfully romantic beginning, in which a man picks up the pieces of a torn-up photograph from the floor of a phone booth and “falls madly in love” with the unknown woman whose face is in it. But even as Antoine -- the thin, nerdy-looking actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, who played him in all the five films (as well as acting in other films by Truffaut and Godard) – insists with a certain nervous energy that this is his imagination, what Truffaut puts on screen is Léaud as Antoine glueing together the image of Sabine, the woman we have already met in Love on the Run as his current girlfriend.

Depending on how you're feeling – in general about men, and in particular about male artists who cannibalise their own lives for art – it is possible to view the Antoine Doinel films as a charming piece of whimsy that entertained several viewers over several decades, or as an indulgent ride that no one except Truffaut should have been forced to go on, at least not after Antoine and Colette. Whichever side you pick, Love on the Run is a fascinating cinematic document: one of the world's most influential filmmakers dipping in and out of clips of his own previous films, to continue the fictional story of a character he created out of his own life, played by the same actor and many of the same co-actors as in clips. In one such clip, from The 400 Blows, we watch the 12-year-old Antoine buttonholed by a psychologist. “Your parents say you're a liar,” she says. The boy wriggles his shoulders, as if shrugging off the weight of that accusation. “Well, I lie sometimes,” he says. “Because if I told the truth, they wouldn't believe me. So I lie.”

Fiction always wins, at least in theory.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 9 February 2020.

Under the influence

My Mirror column:

The under-watched classic Bigger Than Life turns family drama into almost-horror, with prescient warnings against modern medicine and delusional masculinity

The first 20 minutes of Bigger Than Life seem to paint a picture of the perfect family man, who’s also a hard-working, pleasant colleague. A schoolteacher in suburban 1950s America, Ed Avery (James Mason in a career-defining performance) is the nice guy you ask to help push your stalled car, the guy who lets the kid in detention go if he can name one Great Lake out of the five, the guy who sprints on to the last bus after school to work a second job at a garage.

But those first 20 minutes also show us that Ed is also the sort of guy who thinks he can handle everything, and do so alone: he hasn’t told his wife about the garage job because she’ll think it’s beneath him, nor mentioned the pains he’s had for six months because he thinks they’re nothing. So it doesn’t seem surprising that when he’s forced to go to hospital after a blackout, his first instinct is to instruct his little son Richie to be “the man around here” and “take care of your mother”.

On the surface, Nicholas Ray’s film is about the dangerous mental side effects of a miracle drug for the body. Ed is diagnosed with a rare inflammation of the arteries, and treated successfully with cortisone – until he starts to take it in excess. The mood swings, paranoia and manic depression that result only reinforce his impaired judgement, making him take still more pills. Screenwriters Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum based the script on an article called ‘Ten Feet Tall’ by Berton Roueché, medical staff writer for The New Yorker, about a real schoolteacher’s experience with high-dosage cortisone. And though this is 1950s America, and patient and doctor are well-acquainted, even friendly, the film clearly indicates how alienating hospitalisation is: the non-stop tests, the solitary confinement, the ghostliness of barium meal, the unrecognisable medical jargon in which you hear your own body described.

But Ray, a director more famous for films such as Rebel Without a Cause and In a Lonely Place, was a man both ahead of his time and able to see into the depths of it. Released in 1956, when much of America was watching the era-defining sitcom Father Knows BestBigger Than Life revealed the frightening cracks in that idyllic ’50s family picture. At one level, Ed Avery’s symptoms are those of a mentally ill man, but he can certainly also be viewed as a barely-exaggerated version of the ordinary neighbourhood patriarch, the father who thinks he knows best even when he clearly doesn’t. This is the man insecure about being a “male schoolmarm”, who also has delusions of grandeur about schooling the nation. He insults his wife (“What a shame I couldn’t have married... my intellectual equal!”) and pushes his child beyond breaking point in the name of prepping him for the real world (“If you let it at ‘good enough’ right now, that’s the way you’ll be later on.”).

The film is also a powerful indictment of the pressures of life in a consumerist era, for a man trying to give himself and his family a good life on a single schoolteacher’s salary. The Averys’ house is filled with posters of faraway European holiday destinations, and there are wry, hopeful conversations about vacations and “getting away from it all” – while the camera often focuses on James Mason’s watch, and time and lateness is a frequent topic. The tight budgeting that makes Ed work a secret second job has as its flip side the grandiose display he indulges in when under the influence of the cortisone: hustling his wife into a fancy designer store, being rude to the saleswomen, and insisting on buying her two expensive dresses with a cheque that eventually bounces.

The more unbalanced Ed gets, the more he is convinced that he is the only smart person around. The milkman’s jangling of a bell seems to him deliberately designed to annoy him “because I work with my mind”, the other drivers on the street irritate him, his son and wife disappoint him, and the children he teaches for a living seem to him idiots. “We’re breeding a race of moral midgets,” he declares at a PTA meeting, eliciting mostly gasps of disbelief – but also a couple of votes for future school principal.

Watching Bigger Than Life in 2020, the self-aggrandising family man who thinks the country needs to do away with “all this hogwash about self-expression, permissiveness and emotional security” and focus on inculcating “a sense of duty” feels terrifyingly familiar. He might be your neighbour, your uncle, your father or your boss. And his condition is getting worse, under the influence of a collective drug called nationalism, being doled out for free at a counter near you.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 2 February 2020.

Life after death

My Mirror column:

A range of recent narratives, including the quietly brilliant 2019 film Aise Hee (Just Like That), offer a perspective on the unexpectedly liberating possibilities of widowhood.

During a recent stint in a hospital room, I put on the television at low volume, hoping to distract the slowly recuperating 70+ patient. I searched fruitlessly for the things I knew he might enjoy – first for live cricket, then the news in English, old Hollywood films, or perhaps a soothing nature channel. But none of these seemed to be part of the already prohibitive ‘package’. A hospital staff member walked in and said, as if solving a non-existent problem: “Uncle ke liye? Arre bahut saare dhaarmik channel hain.”
How breezily we decide what the old ought to like. I was reminded immediately of the astute, delightful 2019 film Aise Hee, in which an old lady’s desire for the simplest of things – a stroll by the riverside, an ice cream, or just interesting company – raise eyebrows and then hackles across not just her family but the neighbourhood and then the city. Written and directed by debutant , the film received a Special Mention at Busan Film Festival and the Film Critics Guild award at MAMI, while Mohini Sharma won MAMI’s Special Jury Mention for Best Actor (Female) for her wonderful performance as an Allahabad-based woman who rediscovers a taste for life after her husband of 52 years suddenly dies.

For all our post-liberalisation embrace of consumerism, for the vast majority of Indians choice remains an illusion. The lives of old people, in particular, are regulated by a rack of rigid social expectations that offer very little room for individual expression. Of course, it's worse if you’re a woman. And if you’re a widow, your last link to life’s everyday pleasures is deemed to have automatically snapped when your husband dies – even in 21st century India. Some of this is simply an unthinking re-inscribing of deprivations ritually visited upon caste Hindu widows for centuries – in a brutal early scene in Aise Hee, a posse of younger female relatives matter-of-factly divide up Mrs Sharma’s wardrobe of saris without even asking her. It is simply assumed that she must exchange her suhaagan colours for vidhwa whites, or at least dull greys and beiges.

The widespread assumption is that as a widow, she will continue the socially approved life she lived with her husband – going for paatth, religious recitation, and attending the yoga circle in the neighbourhood park. But she is simultaneously expected to curtail her existence, literally reduce the space she takes up in the world. Her son, who lives on the ground floor of the family house with his wife and children, takes it for granted that unlike his father, his mother can be squeezed into one of the downstairs rooms while the upper floor is rented out for some extra income. When his mother resists, gently but firmly, in the direction of a quiet financial independence, even dealing with bank passbooks herself, there is shock. When she actually buys an air-conditioner for her own bedroom, there is outrage.

What makes Aise Hee a joy to watch, though, are Mrs Sharma’s new friendships – with an old neighbourhood tailor whom she persuades to teach her embroidery, and later with a 20-something single woman she meets on the ghat. And what Kislay’s subtle telling makes unmistakeably apparent is the extent to which contemporary Indian society frowns on such one-on-one connections: cutting across religion, gender and class in one instance (the tailor is Muslim), and across age and class in the other (Sugandhi works in a beauty parlour and isn’t a ‘respectable’ companion for an elderly widow).

Aise Hee
 reminded me of a short story called Compassionate Grounds by Tanuj Solanki, part of his collection Diwali in Muzaffarnagar, in which an ageing housewife whose husband has died worriedly contemplates the possibility of taking up a compensatory job in his government office. “I’ve only read Grihshobha and Kadambini after my BA. Not even the newspapers. The last time I dealt seriously with books was when I could still help with you with homework,” she tells her 26-year-old daughter. The documentary About Love, which I wrote about last week in another context, also featured a woman bemusedly describing how living with a dominant husband seems to have stunted her brain. When I’m with him, says the filmmaker’s fifty-something mother, I just do what he says.

Another powerful recent portrait of a spirited old woman suffering the stultifying effects of marriage – and the unexpected liberation afforded by widowhood – is Heena D’Souza’s short film Adi Sonal, which was the best part of last year’s anthology film Shuruaat Ka Twist. Neena Gupta is simply marvellous as a traditional, ritual-bound Sindhi housewife who understands marriage as being about serving her husband – and clearly expects her daughters-in-law to do the same. Until she doesn’t.

In an odd coincidence, in both Adi Sonal and Aise Hee, there is a younger woman played by the same actor, the wonderful Trimala Adhikari. In fact in all these narratives, we see the lives of the old partly through the eyes of the young, which is perhaps a good way for young audiences to empathise with the protagonists. But what we also see are the lives of the young through the eyes of the old. And in those older eyes, there is bafflement, curiosity, and sometimes envy.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 26 Jan 2020.

The care of others

My Mirror column:

Two recent documentaries – Everywhere We Are from Germany and About Love from India – provide thoughtful multiple perspectives on dealing with the illness of a loved one.

Midway through the 2017 German documentary Everywhere We Are, there occurs a totally ordinary conversation between a pair of siblings. “Have you finished eating or do you still want a little bit?” the sister asks. “Still a little bit,” the brother responds. “OK,” she says. Then: “Should I put something behind your neck?” “Come on!” he says, sounding exasperated. The camera moves from her hesitant, concerned face to his almost immobile one. He is sitting up in bed, a small towel covering his bald head. We see the sister's face again as she quickly backs up: “Sorry, it’s too much again.” Sorry, she mutters almost to herself as she pets the family dog, sorry. But as her brother keeps sitting there with a half-eaten meal in front of him, she asks if he is tired, and whether she should take his plate. There is no response. “Yes, no, or maybe?” she persists. “No!” he yells, with a gesture of irritation. “OK,” she says finally. “I’ll leave you alone then.”

In Veronika Kaserer’s quietly observational film, the ordinariness of this scene is bookended by discussions of illness and impending death that are far from ordinary – just before this, for instance, we have seen the sister (Sonja) ask the brother (Heiko) whether there’s anything specific he wants said at his funeral. Dance instructor Heiko Lekutat, 29, has a particularly persistent cancer that forced him to amputate a leg early on, and now threatens to kill him any day. Sonja, his only sister, and their parents Jurgen and Karin, have brought him back from the hospital, “home to die”.
Heiko has fought his disease with fortitude for years: getting an artificial leg, continuing with his dance project. Even at this last stage, he and everyone around him try to keep their spirits up. There are conversations about his good appetite, laughter with visiting friends, and gently wry humour: in one domestic moment, as Heiko is wheeled past the dinner table, he stops at his father’s place and samples a bit from his plate, calling it “a quick stopover”.

Kaserer’s film, which was awarded the Compass-Perspektive-Award 2018 for best film at last year’s Berlinale, runs the risk of being seen as intrusive or exploitative because it focuses on the most painful aspect of life – death. There are not too many close-ups and the film contains more thoughtful conversations than teary ones: this is, after all, a middle class German milieu. But by cutting back and forth between the last days of Heiko’s life and the time soon after his death, Kaserer offers an intimate sense of what it’s like to deal with the loss of a loved one.

There is much to be learnt from the very different ways in which different people respond. The father, Jurgen, who is closest to Heiko, is mostly intent on keeping hope alive and helping Heiko fight: the only time he breaks down on camera is when talking about how apart from the unfairness of such a young person having to die, what he feels “is simply egoistic – that I will miss him so much”. The mother, Karin, is also deeply sad, but her way of strengthening her son involves trying to prepare him for the hereafter. She wants to tell him of her own near-death experience, when she was briefly in a coma. Sonja, the sister, gets her arm tattooed in Heiko’s handwriting, commemorating their siblinghood, and grapples constantly with wanting to help her brother at every turn – while coming up against the fact that illness does not prevent him from wanting his own space. “It is not a good sign if he lets me touch him.”

Heiko is prickly, but he’s far from being a rude patient, at least on camera. But anyone who’s ever taken care of a family member knows that familiarity, certainly in this context, breeds a great deal of contempt. Another recent personal documentary, Archana Phadke’s wonderful About Love, which won the New Talent award at the Sheffield Doc festival in June 2019 before playing at festivals from Mumbai to Dharamshala to Goyang, South Korea, takes us deep into the dynamics of Phadke’s own family. Her crabby octogenarian grandfather is a great “character”, especially on film. But even as you laugh out loud at his unconcerned swearing and almost comic berating of his wife, you remain powerfully aware of what it takes for Phadke’s almost equally aged grandmother to take care of him. Year upon year, feeding and bathing and helping him sleep, the intimate caregiver who enforces the discipline he needs to carry on living receives only abuse in return.

Closeness to someone who is suffering is a strange thing, producing unexpected forms of intimacy and sometimes necessary forms of distance. Phadke’s grandmother has resigned herself to her duties in a marital domestic milieu from which escape is not even imaginable. Sonja’s desire for greater closeness to her dying brother is experienced by him as excessive, making her insecure. Self-preservation is needed in both these cases.

Meanwhile a close friend of Heiko’s says he feels his energies dip when Heiko’s do, and rise when Heiko is feeling better. A possibly Buddhist mentor tells him that though he should not burden Heiko with his own experience, this level of empathy with someone can be seen as a gift. It may not be, he adds, “a gift from a secular perspective”. No modern rational belief system embraces the idea of experiencing pain willingly, not even the imagined pain of another’s body. And yet, how can we ever successfully care for anyone if we don’t at least try to imagine ourselves in their place?

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 19 Jan 2020.