The Seen and The Unseen
The Camera as a mirror, a portal and a recorder.
Close to midway into Archana Phadke’s wonderful documentary film, About Love, a strange thing happens. Till that point, Archana’s camera follows the members of her family as they go about managing the Phadke household in preparation for her younger brother’s wedding. Then, her brother asks her to be in front of the camera and answer his questions - Why don’t you want to get married, he asks. Archana replies - I don’t want to be like my mother.
It is a disarming scene, partly because Archana has gone from being an observant presence behind the camera to a subject filmed by that very camera. But mostly, the scene caught me by surprise because of the candid nature of Archana’s revelation. From then on, Archana’s mother - Maneesha, became the soul of the film for me, the personification of all that I gathered the film was trying to say about things unsaid.
Personal documentaries like this one are very affecting. In most other forms of documentaries, perhaps most strongly in investigative documentaries, the prime function is to shed light on the ‘unseen’. But here, the camera shows you the already ‘seen’ and yet illuminates the ‘unseen’. In a gorgeous piece about the film, Ishita Sengupta writes,
By letting her gaze linger on her family, she not just presents a story that plays out at my home with regular occurrence but by doing it unflinchingly and pervasively, she uncovers moments I have walked past without stopping by, those which appeared too mundane than the rest and those, when seen from her lens, de-familiarised and re-familiarised me with people I thought I knew well.
Interestingly, this effect extends to the maker of the film too. In an interview, Archana highlights how her film helped uncouple members of her family from their familial roles.
“I have always been scared of being in relationship where my identity will be taken away from me. I have felt that at home too – people are put into these roles, and they follow them. My mother was my mother and my father was my father. As I filmed, I started noticing things I had never noticed before. The camera became an instrument of intuition and helped me understand my family better. I began to look at them as individuals with their own dreams and ideas.”
This quote helped me rationalize what Archana probably meant when she said she didn’t want to become like her mother. She didn’t want to be confined to a single role, an identity wholly defined by familial ties. Watching the film unfold, I couldn’t help but think about something that has been inexplicably lodged into my brain for quite some time.
For the last few years, I find myself wanting to but yet unable to, probe my parents about their lives before they assumed the roles of my parents. I’ve only heard quips about my father’s kite-flying skills. As Archana’s father executed one kite manoeuvre after another, I wondered if my father did the same from the terrace of a crowded Mumbai bylane. I felt a strange yearning for holding the charkha as he did, a yearning originating either from a memory blurred in time or a primal need to have been the beneficiary of a skill that he once mastered.
When we moved to a much larger apartment than the one I grew up in, my mother was able to decorate the walls of the house with some of her paintings. But the ones, I liked the most remained in the storage room. These were two extraordinarily beautiful oil paintings, the colors scraped and sculpted by a knife rather than applied by a brush. My mother says that a painting of a sinking ship is ominous. What I want to know is why she painted this scene at all. Was it just an aesthetic experiment, or is there a meaning behind the teals and aqua-marines of the deep ocean?
I can’t quite pin down this need to learn about my parents younger selves. Maybe, I feel that a patchwork of these vignettes will somehow reveal their lives from back then. A life fraught with uncertainty, yes, but also riddled with hope and ambition, as mine is right now. Surely, some of their dreams were sacrificed at the altar of time and circumstance. Surely, mine will be too. But, isn’t it worth knowing these dreams that existed before they died?
In About Love, I saw the magnificent power of a camera as an instrument, sometimes of intuition, sometimes of reflection. In a film full of seemingly banal moments filmed almost entirely by a moving hand-held, the ending stands out. There is Archana’s mother in a single static close-up accompanied by background music. She narrates a passage from her book, a character musing about the connection between herself and a butterfly. Maneesha could very well be talking about love, the sometimes ephemeral, sometimes elusive nature of it. And then, she looks straight into the camera, the one that asked her what she thought love could be, and the only one that listened.
Reads (long or not)
My dear friend Sanjana Ramachandran wrote an incredible sweeping story for Fifty Two that is not just about names and how they come about but presents a microcosm of India today and from years ago. It’s a hugely entertaining and informative read, a seductive combination to say the least: The Namesakes.
A friend Shruthi wrote a wonderful essay on Maple Syrup and its origins. Like all good personal essays, this one was specific but spoke about something universal. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Shruthi’s musings on all things maple: Life Lessons from the Marvelous Mrs Maple.
I’m not going to try and encapsulate what Vijeta Kumar’s latest essay is all about, but only say that it is as incredible as everything she has written before. I’m a simple man. I see a new Vijeta essay, I read and share: Girls, Cows and the Cities they Grind to Dust. The essay also features gorgeous art by Priyanka Paul.
I am reading The Second Kind of Impossible by Paul Steinhardt for the second time and it’s as much of a science-filled fun cross-continental adventure ride as it was when I read it for the first time. Come for the clear science writing on quasicrystals, stay for the engrossig detective story.
Do watch About Love whenever it’s out online or elsewhere. Meanwhile, I absolutely love Faiza Khan’s Supermen of Malegaon. It’s endlessly charming and life-affirming, and beneath all of its goofy fun is an astute commentary on the power of cinema and community. I had written in my piece on the film - “Consider spending an hour on YouTube to watch Supermen of Malegaon. It will make you less angry and even the slightest bit hopeful – a feeling that is no mean feat in this day and age.”
Two TV shows I watched recently that I quite liked - In Tabbar on Sony-Liv, we see a family desperate in self-preservation then lose sight of what they are preserving. It’s a familiar tale told masterfully. Dopesick on Hulu is a gripping mini-series on how one family fueled the modern opioid crisis in the US.
I think Pixar’s Soul is a masterpiece and this video is an excellent take on why: Soul Should Be Nominated for Best Picture.
Gustavo Santaolalla somehow captured the sparing and haunting beauty of Brokeback Mountain in his score for the film. This score suite performed live gave me the right kind of feels.
I saw John Carney’s film Once, loved it and downloaded its entire soundtrack. I am sure I’ll go through more than once.
Let me Show you
by Jonny Teklit
come now, on a street in my neighborhood, there is a family
of mimosa trees, their beautiful bristly flowers fizzy and pink.
and think, on this earth, there are over four hundred thousand
different kinds of flowers, some with names so lovely and strange,
you cannot resist delight: zinnia, eyeball, love-in-a-mist, regal birdflower.
and just yesterday, while on a walk, I saw in the grass ahead of me
some four dozen little sparrows take off into the air all at once,
disappearing into–or perhaps becoming–the leaves of a nearby tree,
the branches shaking in the trilling wind. listen to how they sound
together, how they play the instrument of their mouths.
dolphins, too, play with one another, not for any sort of evolutionarily
determined mode of survival, but simply pleasure; which is survival
as far as I’m concerned. oh, how my little joys have saved me, pulled me
from brinks, known and not, and turned my head toward the winged
thing, the hopeful bird (or was it the birdful hope?) I am always losing track of:
the triangularly-cut sandwich, the book read in one sitting, the elephant
dust bath, the slow in-and-out of thread when fixing a patch on my favorite
jacket, the cliche sunset, the funny tweet, the lotion applied to my thigh,
the bumblebee drinking the dewdrop of Sprite hanging from the lip of the can,
the surprise album release, the letter in the mailbox with my name on it
that is not spam nor bill but a tender note from a friend several states away,
the fact that the regal birdflower is called such because of the way its petals
mimic the shape of a hummingbird drinking its own nectar so that it may
look more appealing to the other pollinators of the woods, and the one
million other dazzling occurrences and phenomena I do not have the time to list—
all of these things make of me a rainstorm in the ocean, which is to say
look at how I return to myself, look at how these things turn me
into a wheelbarrow of chirping chicks, bright and raucous with glee.
the world, at any given moment, is always revealing, from beneath
its red magician’s cloth, some latest despair, some new horror to snatch
the breath, but the trick—the prestige—is that while we weren’t looking,
the flock of small joys we saw vanish in the first act reappeared,
sure as spring, under our seats, nuzzling our ankles just so,
This etching on paper titled Dialogue by Anupam Sud is quite something.
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