Tuesday, October 9, 2007

"Consider This Your Home": review of Sandhya Suri's "I for India"

Sandhya Suri's "I for India" does everything that The Namesake tried to do, and then some.

Last night we were lucky to attend a screening of Sandhya Suri's 2005 documentary film "I for India" at the Alliance Francaise here in Delhi. The film largely consists of home movies and audio tapes recorded over a period of forty or fifty years by the film maker's father, a doctor; by unidentified members of his extended family in Meerut, India; and later, by the film maker herself. Together, these clips create a sense of tragic comedy worthy of an early Naipaul novel--Y.P. Suri, the father, in particular poignantly recalls the "half man" of Naipaul: leaving India for his medical training in England with his wife and young daughter, his stay there is always meant to be temporary. His longing for family and home inspire him to buy two reel-to-reel audio tape recorders, and two Super 8 cameras and projectors. He sends one half of this equipment to his sprawling and emotional joint family based in Meerut and keeps the other half for himself. The bulk of the film is patched together from this intimate, unusual means of correspondence.

A sense of intimacy is intense in both the audio and video clips: grainy footage of snow swirling through bleak, brick-bound streets in the family's new home of Darlington; thick-waisted Britons in bell-bottoms twisting drunkenly close to the camera as Susheel--the film maker's mother--sits with a wry grin making chitchat on the couch in the corner; Y.P. Suri's labored breathing as he reassures his father and mother of his intentions to return home, his Hindi breaking into English, his self-recriminations at the use of the "firangi" tongue--the dark comedy in his attempt to explain to his mother that from now on he would try to use Hindi equivalents for words that he would otherwise insert in English and then struggling to find a word for "equivalent" in Hindi. Here is the heart of the film's tragedy: the contradictory, self-negating attempts of Y.P. Suri to control and maintain his sense of identity, an identity bounded by tiny humiliations and larger ones, by guilt and recrimination, by the sobbing voice of a father muffled and mediated on an old tape machine, begging his son to come home.

And the good doctor, his wife and family finally do return home, in the mid-70s. But it comes as no surprise in the film that home isn't what he expects: his mother has passed away, his dreams of a thriving medical practice never materialize, his wife is miserable in the family's joint house, and his daughters--now in their teens--feel bored and constrained. One recalls coming to her father's small office, in a dingy building full of similar offices, his brightly painted sign ("UK LEADING SPECIALIST") lost in a thicket of competing signs, and finding him sitting there, futile and alone. After 9 months the family returns to England.

The most heartbreaking sequence in the film--and it is indeed heartbreaking, several of the people around me were in tears--comes when one of the daughters, now an adult, leaves England for a job in Australia, with no definite date of return. By now, Y.P. Suri's camera vies with Sandhya's own, and the two occasionally catch each other in their mechanical gazes, reinforcing the deep, almost submarine sense of voyeuristic submersion that this film induces in the viewer. The parallels between the daughter's departure from England and the original departure of the family from India are so obvious to everyone involved that they hardly need to be made explicit. We watch the daughter watching the faces of her father and mother, who are looking at each other, at her, at their grandchildren rolling around the floor of the airport, looking at Sandhya, and the full weight of the moment falls on the viewer, more powerful for being unspoken. The world is like this now, for Y.P. Suri, rootless, caught in a thousand shifting gazes, and in a state of travel. Exile is as inevitable as destiny.

The film opens with Susheel sitting uncomfortably through a presentation being made to her "Ladies' Club" on the subject of India--a pompous British gentleman, just back from a visit, goes through a series of cliched slides capturing the "infuriating but always, always bewitching" India, and inserting what he takes to be witty, worldly asides into a narrative of India that casts it and its people as radically, wholly other. "I live in a village, too," he tells the ladies, after recounting the warm welcome he received in an Indian village and the pleasures of interacting with the authentic Indians there, "and I know that if an Indian came to my village, people would be peeking out between the blinds, wondering what was going on." Susheel's dignified, awkward mask of a smile hardly cracks for a moment. Meanwhile, Y.P. shows footage of their recent trip to Egypt to a group of elderly amateur enthusiasts in his "camcorder club": there is the Sphinx, there is the camel, there is the belly-dancer, there is Y.P. Suri walking through a busy cafe wearing a long white Arab-style dress and headscarf, disappearing into the crowd.