Thursday 29 October 2009

Laxmi and Me

The Bombay 'Bai' is quite a famous caricature. MTv uses it in it's promos 'bai' now become 'bhai', a desi pun on the word 'by'. Maids are different all over, in Bengal for example one encounters mild mannered soft-spoken maids, artistic and ladylike, while the cankerous, rough speech and agressive behaviour of the Maharashtrian bai's has been used as comic relief in many films. Maids are an integral part of Indian household and and their lives and habits have often offered rich material for scripts and manuscripts.
Laxmi and Me is a film shot by Nishtha Jain of her 20 yr old part time maid Laxmi and explores the life of a maid in Bombay. It is an unusual film, not so much so because of the subject but because it puts the filmmaker, who is the employer into the picture as well. There are various documentaries and stories which deal with the plight of the poor workers from different classes of society, but usually the filmmakers use the camera and script from a superior platform. In this particular film it was refreshing to see the subject and the filmmaker put on the same plane.By doing so, the story breaks away from the mold of pontificating on how the 'other side' lives but throws up an interesting plethora of issues while exploring the relationship between Laxmi, the maid and Nishtha Jain who is filming her.
In daily life few people acknowledge the role of the maid in the house. She comes, cooks, cleans, does the laundry and the dishes, is always a flitting presence in our lives, from one room to another, but in most cases we know her just as 'Bai'. In this film Nishtha Jain becomes involved in Laxmi's life, seeing her not only as a maid but in her many roles as a daughter, sister, friend, wife and eventually mother.

At first we are just shown the drudgery of her life. She works close to 14 hours a day cleaning and cooking in about 10 households, goes back home and does the same in her house. She works for a pittance, often puts in extra hours without any extra pay, and can hardly ever take a day off, even when she is ill and pregnant. There is no union for maids as a result they cannot bargain for standardized pay, work hours, holidays or benefits. They know if they demand better working conditions they will be easily replaced by ten other girls in similar circumstances willing to take their place.

Over the 2 and half years of filming many bonds are formed and lines blurred between the employee and the employer, but the class divide is so deeply ingrained in us that it startles you at first when seated at the same dining table as her employer, Laxmi considers herself Black and her employer as White! Another profound moment is when Laxmi is on leave and Nishtha while cleaning the floors herself wonders “Why it is so difficult for us to get down on our knees.”

Slowly as Laxmi lets Nishtha into her life, one's concepts of modernity and education get a jolt. You see that in spite of being uneducated, she is less inhibited than educated woman , she is the man of her household, makes her own decision and is even the first one to propose marriage to a boy her family is against because of the difference in castes. In contrast we are shown another lady who employs Laxmi, and who in spite of being educated, well off and 'modern' sits in the house playing solitaire. Laxmi on the other hand has the courage and clarity of thought to decide to have her baby even if she has to take care of it alone. A decision many of us so called modern educated woman would not take.

In the end though I think Laxmi was far luckier than most girls in her circumstances. Few would stand a chance of survival with being pregnant, thrown out of the house, afflicted with TB and Chicken Pox and still working 14 hours a day and then in the end being abandoned by one's husband because of typical male prejudices, ALL at one go.

Laxmi and Me has beautiful clean shots and has been skillfully edited, it unassumingly covers caste, gender , class and poverty without sermonizing.