Sundance 2021: Alisha Tejpal’s Lata: “I Want You To Ask Questions. I’m Not Interested In Passive Cinema”

Alisha Tejpal says, “My biggest question in Indian cinema across the decades, at least for me growing up in Mumbai, is the way domestic labour has been framed. How do I write a film about a domestic labourer, as an upper-class, upper-caste woman? What are the political and ethical questions, and how do I frame that story? I am not attempting to give Lata a voice because I don’t think it’s my place.”

In a series of static takes, we observe the world of Lata, to the extent that we can. An interview with the Los Angeles-based filmmaker, who is very clear that she is very much an outsider to her protagonist.

 The film is about Lata. What made you decide you wanted to start with the Election Commission officer who comes to the house, asking about a member of the family Lata works for?

 I wanted the audience to fall into a conventional narrative structure, where you introduce a character with this idea that you’re going to follow a certain event. And then, I wanted to take the detour to Lata, subverting the audience’s expectations. When we watch a film, we subconsciously choose to follow the dominant narrative and it’s always almost related to class and caste, both from our cultural conditioning and from our own personal conditioning. I wanted to break that.

 Also, opening the film like this, I wanted to say that so much of the population that’s perhaps most deeply affected by change in governments don’t vote. 

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It’s interesting that the election officer speaks to Lata’s employer’s daughter in Hindi, but the moment he sees Lata, he speaks to her in Marathi. It says how appearances can make us stereotype people.

 We tried to present language as a marker for class and caste and how even unconsciously we slip into these switches of language. But also in terms of screenwriting that scene, the approach was very much a documentary approach and that’s why I’ve been stressing on the fact that for me this film is personally a re-enacted document.

 When Lata is talking to her boyfriend, he mentions a bus accident that resulted in the death of everyone inside. These are people from their village. But before Lata can ask more, she hears her employer’s footsteps and quickly hangs up.

 In terms of how we (me and my co-writer Mireya Martinez) arrived at the bus accident, I wanted very clearly this idea of what is public and what is private and how class divisions can determine the privilege you have for privacy and also this idea of time. I wanted to explore the ways in which we experience time differently: for example the family gets to experience breakfast in a particular way while the morning time is extremely rushed for this woman. Lata’s most private moments are extremely public, and she isn’t afforded the privilege of time that you would normally think something that traumatic deserves.

Sundance 2021: Alisha Tejpal’s Lata: “I Want You To Ask Questions. I’m Not Interested In Passive Cinema”

 Later, this accident is mentioned on TV. Lata’s employers are watching, and they flip past this news and land at a show where Alia Bhatt is talking about her sister. Are you judging Lata’s employers here?

 Part of the choice to shoot the film in my own home, with my family members being part of the cast, was very much a kind of self-implication. One way to look at it is as judgment. Another way to look at it is that hierarchies of disparities are so high that the worlds we live in are disconnected. I don’t think the film attempts to blame anyone in the shot as much as make it palpable that this is a human, a body living in your house  that other than your relationship to that body with labour, you are not really associated with the body as  a human.

Also Read: Baradwaj Rangan’s review of Sir

Sundance 2021: Alisha Tejpal’s Lata: “I Want You To Ask Questions. I’m Not Interested In Passive Cinema”

 The film is a series of long static takes. It’s like you want us to know what it’s like when Lata is sweeping the living room. What dictated this formal choice? 

 I wasn’t making this film for Lata or any other people that live this life. They live it, they know it, they see it. But I was also clear that it wasn’t a pity party. It wasn’t like ‘look at this very sad life’. It became clear that the audience was me, my family and the likes of my family. I wanted to take the time to stop and understand that all these spaces have been occupied before us. The ghosts of labour surround us, and I wanted us to experience those ghosts.

 When a shot (say, of Lata sweeping) runs beyond a certain point, it allows the audience the time to wander and wonder what happened before she came to clean, what might happen next. This is possible because of the time in the frame. The static-ness was very much a formal choice, and it was to allow us the time to be with her, to actually be present in the space.

 What if you had been more middle-class? Would you have made this film  with an “outside-in” gaze? Because in India, the middle classes (especially the housewives) have intimate relationships with domestic labourers and help.

 Yes and no. Yes, I do think it would change a lot of the setting of the film. The fact that you can have just three people in a huge living room (like in my film) already means something in India. It’s a commentary on space and the privilege of space. And no, because in some ways I do personally come from a household where the help doesn’t sit on the floor. They sit on the couches, with us. So it’s a bit of both.  But it’s an inescapable fact that we often tie identities to labour and professions. So even if the household had been middle-class, the film would have still dealt with the same themes, because there is still a class difference and there is still going to be an other-ising that occurs along class/caste lines.

I thought you were going to end on a celebratory note, with Lata dancing at the Ganpati gathering. But then, you cut back to the stillness of the house at night.

 From the beginning, I was very clear that I didn’t want to make it the kind of film that ends with a freeze frame on a dancing Lata. I didn’t want to suggest that I have the capacity to free her on celluloid. It’s not for me to free her and I don’t think she’s asking to be freed. I think she’s asking to be seen. After this celebration, she will come home to work. The house still waits, and the spaces at night still hold her presence.

 It was also an emphasis on how disconnected we are. The city is another entity far away, and the home is protected and perched here. Because Ganpati is the one time of the year when the streets are not owned by us. They do not belong to the upper middle class and the upper class. The streets belong to the working class. The distinction is so intense. But all that changes the next morning. Lata is back and the power dynamics switch again. It was important for me to remind us of that.

 One of the things that you don’t find in the West is domestic help, unless you’re super-rich. It’s not a middle-class thing at all. When your film is playing at Sundance, do you think there may be some kind of a translation problem? 

 I’m coming to this conclusion that I don’t think everyone has to understand everything. I think that’s the beauty of expanding the world in cinema and I don’t think it’s my space as a brown Indian woman making a film about my culture and country to have to explain to a white audience. I think what the film is about is clear. From the feedback I’ve gotten there are few nuances they’re not sure how to read. For me, we’ve done a successful job because I want you to ask questions. I’m not interested in passive cinema. I think it’s okay to feel like an outsider because you are an outsider to my culture, just like I’m an outsider to Lata. I’m fed up with this idea of universal cinema, because that comes with a certain arrogance. I think it’s okay to flip the coin a little bit and have them try to figure out what we’re making. It’s okay to not know everything. 

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