Director: Jai Mehta
Cast: Tejaswini Kolhapuri, Nagesh Bhonsle
In Loin du 16e, one of eighteen parts of the 2006 short-film anthology, Paris, je t’aime, we’re introduced to a Spanish immigrant working in the bustling French capital. The young lady wakes up at dawn in her cramped apartment, and rushes to the nearest daycare center to quickly deposit her baby there. The sun shines brightly by the time she reaches ‘work’. The film ends with the revelation of what exactly she does for a living: a nanny to a rich family’s baby in a swanky upstate neighbourhood.
In between, however, her arduous commute across town involves three modes of transportation and a brisk walk in the cold. This long, near-silent phase of her morning – where we only see her face growing a little more lifeless and business-like with each bus/train stop – is what spiritually defines the stark class divide in perhaps any major city on this planet. She exists, for those two rushed hours, between two worlds, in contemplation of maybe how only one of those two children will grow up with her working-class values.
Jai Mehta’s 17-minute short for National Geographic’s Mission Blue Stories series, Paanipath, initially plays out with the same motif. Except there’s no baby, and we see the Mumbai-based housemaid’s (Tejaswini Kolhapuri) second half of her day instead: a hot summer commute from an employer’s flat to her own modest hutment in a teeming slum area.
The focus here could have well been immigration, too, and it’d still be as valid. But as the title suggests, Paanipath is a humane exploration of the far more expansive and region-specific ‘water crisis’ issue instead. This is just as well. A sudden shortage of any resource invariably expresses this country’s true disparities – with socio-economic, cultural, religious, political and class rifts blending beneath one desperate umbrella – far more effectively than most strategic day-in-the-life-of videos do. More so, when it’s water, in a city notorious for its monsoon flooding.
The routines here play out so authentically that we’re constantly placed in a position where we wonder what the lady must be thinking of. And she is certainly thinking. I suspect it isn’t about the ruthlessness of human nature that turns water into a murky business, or that she isn’t far from the day she will have to pay for the air she breathes. These realities are too ingrained in her being for her to question their legitimacy. Her thinking is small and personal: immediate survival, her kid, their future. There’s that typically preoccupied, tired face she wears: one of domestic service, but one that also suggests that even her struggles are on autopilot.
She mechanically goes about her chores in the upper middle-class household, perhaps numbed by the irony that much of her job involves the (over) usage of water. Before leaving, there’s a shot of her splashing her face at the washbasin – almost preparing, with bated breath, for the painfully dry day ahead. For a second, you sense that she’d rather not leave someone else’s home. For a minute, you hope that she carries back some water with her. But then again, that’s like hoping for guards at a bank to invade its vaults to salvage their own financial situation.
Kolhapuri, like the Spanish nanny, communicates plenty about her character’s existence without saying much. She becomes the part by doing the littler, scarcely noticeable things right: the gait changing from reverential (on the job) to dominant (with her daughter) back to submissive when her husband appears, the way she does the dishes, cooks, frets, speaks to strangers, and even walks with an empty mug in her hand. When she stands at the door of the train, she becomes one of the thousand faceless stories crammed into a hot box – those undertaking journeys without definite destinations.
Mehta, like his filmmaker father Hansal Mehta (Shahid, City Lights, Aligarh), shows a penchant for letting the stark geography of his film’s surroundings evoke much of his characters’ temperaments. It doesn’t have to exaggerate in tone or narrative, given that we, as urban viewers, are busy fathoming the probability of “films” like these unraveling wordlessly at our doorstep, in our kitchens and on our floors every morning. It’s one thing to check our privileges, and another altogether to admire the craft that informs us enough to do so.
Paanipath is a sensitive short film that occasionally transcends its social-cause status. I’m often wary of statistical slates appearing at the end of such films, because stating written facts in a visual medium often reveals a lack of confidence in the content that precedes it. Paanipath, too, doesn’t need the slate. But India is a country of numbers. And in rare cases, like this one, these overwhelming numbers lend a singularity to the faces we invest in.