There are several moments in Nishtha Jain’s documentary when the subjects express a desire to die. “I wish I would get a ticket to go up soon (die),” says Lakshmi after being diagnosed with tuberculosis. Her sister, Saras, when probed about their father’s alcoholic stupors, says quietly, “I am so sick of this human existence.”
There are other moments too when characters looming on the periphery confess or hint at the worthlessness of life. Lakshmi’s husband, Krishna, questioned on his wife’s unexpected pregnancy, says he wanted her to go to the hospital “to take care of it”.
It is not a happy lot that viewers encounter in Jain’s documentary Lakshmi and Me, a bleak but movingly blunt portrayal of her friendship with her maid, Lakshmi. Yet, despite the Dickensian overtones—sniffling broods of grubby children and morose adults occupy shanties and alleyways; their presence neither accounted for, nor alluded to—Lakshmi and Me is not a didactic narrative from which the viewer is meant to glean the value of life. Instead, by focusing on the precarious and often sisterly relationship between herself and Lakshmi, Jain has offered us a frank look at the almost comically labelled “domestic” class. They cook our food, scrub our floors, even look after our children and, yet, Jain wants us to know, we remain oblivious to their lives.
Jain was nominated for the Silver Wolf at Amsterdam’s IDFA
What we are shown is not so much a glimpse of what will happen as an assessment of what did, a look at how Lakshmi—pregnant, sick and at times irrationally giggly— arrived at this point. “She had turned 21 and she was already looking very tired, different from what she was looking a couple of years ago,” Jain tells me. “And I wonder what is going to happen to her in the coming years.” Jain, an accomplished film-maker who has won numerous accolades for her previous works—City of Photos (2005) and Call it Slut (2006)—is very much present in this work, sometimes including herself in the frame, at other times reflected in the mirror holding the camera, or probing Lakshmi and her family about their lives. The result, though vaguely unsettling at first—when Jain tries to talk to Lakshmi’s father about her marriage to the unsuitable Krishna, you get the sense that Jain, by steering the plot along, has crossed a line—is effective. “I felt that I was no longer the film-maker, and very soon I had become the protagonist,” Jain says. “I don’t think I could have been an impersonal observer. So, I had to be myself. I mean, even had I not been making the film, I would have gone and talked to her father.”
It is hard to fault Jain for meddling in Lakshmi’s life. Like the Oscar-winning Born into Brothels (2004), which was as much about the film-maker’s relationship with her subjects as it was about her subjects, Lakshmi and Me tries to pinpoint the murky boundaries of employer–servant and film-maker–subject relationships. It is Jain’s presence, in a sense, that places Lakshmi’s life in context. When Lakshmi goes into labour, Jain, holding her hand, wonders, “I’m not sure if I’m here as a friend, employer, or film-maker.” She is pulled up short when Lakshmi, watching footage of her sitting at the dining table with Jain and her friends, says, “See, they’re sitting together like white people, and I’m like this one black person amongst them.”
Lakshmi, slim and clever, is a beguiling subject. She is in turn rebellious, charming, and mercurial, answering Jain’s questions with giggles, and often staring at the camera with an unblinking gaze. It is at Lakshmi’s suggestion that we are witness to the intimate parts of her life, including one cringe-inducing scene where her tongue is pierced with a silver prong. When she is diagnosed with TB, and later chicken pox, the camera is left on an exhausted and gaunt Lakshmi as she is ferried from hospital to hospital.
Jain’s lens is unapologetically honest, and there are moments when the viewer is left uncomfortably close. At a doctor’s waiting room, Lakshmi, heavily pregnant, sits between two patients. Though average sized, they dwarf her and, as she snatches a glance at the woman to her right, clutching her plastic bag of medical files to her stomach, we recognize not for the first time, her vulnerability.
Somewhere in the film, Jain tags along to one of the homes that Lakshmi has been cleaning since she was 10. Vaswani, an amiable middle-class housewife, is wondrously honest, confessing that she herself had never done a domestic chore in her life. “She was a very sweet child once,” she says of Lakshmi. “She’s a very sweet child but—destiny!” As the film closes on Lakshmi swabbing floors, the viewer is left hoping that destiny may yet deal her better fortune. A t the National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai, on 21 March, at 6.30pm.