What do you do when you ‘exoticise’ India?
(Review of a documentary film)
A few days ago, I went to see a documentary made by two Belgian directors. It is called ‘Himself he cooks’. It is shot in the Golden Temple of the Sikhs, in Amritsar, India, the most sacred place of worship for the community. This temple offers free food for a hundred thousand visitors every day and for double or triple that number on feast days. Visitors may also rest there during the day or night. Images of cooking, cleaning, serving and washing by thousands of volunteers dominate the film. To quote from the synopsis: ‘the spontaneous choreography of the many hands that join in the preparation of the food reveals the essence of this fascinating place and invites the viewer to consider the joy of sharing’. The still image that accompanies this description in the brochure shows a devotee in the pool before the temple, head bowed in prayer, hands joined. Together the image and the description invite us to enter into that incomprehensible world of India, where we could once more be struck with wonder at its ever-surprising repertoire of religion, faith, worship and community. ‘Himself he cooks’ has been chosen as the opening film of the Beeld voor Beeld film festival in Amsterdam.
The theatre is full. Not an empty chair.
It’s not the first time in the Netherlands that I have sat at the edge of my seat drinking in the beauty of images made and woven together through a film by ‘Western eyes’ looking at the land of my birth. Then slowly I have watched with growing apprehension what they choose to leave out of the frame and what they choose to put into it and how they do it.
I ask myself, ‘Why do they continue to ‘exoticise’ India’?
We see garlic being cut by crowds, potatoes peeled, tears rolling down the eyes of onion cutters while hands are in musical rhythm, balls of flour being flung and directed with a hoe, rotis being flipped with immaculate precision, metal plates flung from out of the frame at a man holding a plate like a bat hitting what comes at him so it falls in a pile at his feet, bowls being washed by people in neat lines. For most of the 65 minutes, there is no comment and no other input from the directors. None of the people speak into camera and in fact they don’t speak to each other either. As someone in the audience commented, they don’t interact at all with another human being – physically or verbally. They sometimes stare into the camera and the camera stares back (or the other way around). The filmmakers ask no questions and get no answers. What we see a lot is exactly – the choreography – the dance of the joint actions of people of cutting, cooking, serving, eating, cleaning. Most of this adds up to one message: this is how they do it there. The wonder filled eyes of the camera taking in the ‘otherness’ of what is before it. Images that reinforce what every orientalist has done.
At the end of the film we are given a message by way of text: centuries after Sikhism first arrived, the Golden Temple is still one of the rare places in India where people of every caste, class, and kind may sit together and share a simple meal thus erasing all differences and all inequalities. The religious spirit is also reinforced through images that are not about the noise and the ‘organized chaos’ (words of the filmmaker) of the community kitchen. They are outside the geography of the cooking and eating-places and with the sound in the film dropping by quite a few decibels; they are clearly images that make a huge impact because they communicate peace and beauty. A man in turban, cut off exactly at the waist in the frame gliding gracefully on the water of the pool, solo in his boat, the shimmering gold of the temple reflecting in the water with music in the background, the devotees who stop on their way to somewhere, get off their vehicles and stand, hands folded in front of the temple, men who very calmly remove clothing and enter the water, and then stand very still in the pool. While it is true that the community kitchen and the inspiration behind it, the idea of ‘seva’ (voluntary service) take up most of the time of the film, it’s actually these images here above that make up the ‘space’ or provide for the context and setting of ‘seva’. The choice of placing one such image (man in prayer in the pool) and not one of the kitchen as an accompaniment to the text of the synopsis in the brochure is telling. So, the film in fact conveys more meaning than the title ‘Himself, he cooks’ suggests.
Yet one of the filmmakers says ‘Sikhisim is about the langar’ (the community kitchen) at the time of the Q and A. The brochure says he is a cook by profession. He is so calm and sounds so sure of himself when he makes this statement that no asks him how he did his research. I ask him a related question. I ask him while he was in the Golden Temple, did he see the rooms devoted to death, violence and martyrdom in the precincts of the temple? These too are interpreted as images of ‘seva’, or voluntary service by some Sikhs. Only they are not about feeding, but about getting killed and killing people for the greater good of the community. The images of the dead bodies on display are of people who were considered terrorists by some in the early 1980’s because they willingly gave up their lives in exchange for taking others. Some of them were killed in the temple itself when the Indian army stormed it in 1984.Their photos with bullet wounds through their heads, eyes and every other part of their bodies are difficult to ignore since they are placed in the outer rooms, very close to the entrance, and presented ‘museum style’ to the visitors entering the temple. And they are not in the film. The filmmakers say yes they saw them and that their idea was to focus on the gestures and the choreography, of the kitchen ‘seva’. To focus on the elements of water, fire and metal.
So, not blood.
Water yes. The same image of the devotee in the pool is also placed on the front cover of the brochure of the ‘Beeld voor Beeld’ festival. On the first page, the director of the festival introduces us to what is to follow: ‘This year’s theme of ‘Beeld voor Beeld addresses these issues of post conflict societies……How do these societies deal with the traumatic past? Is there room for reconciliation?’ ‘Himself, he cooks’ as the opening film ‘invites us to consider the joy of sharing’. This then is how post conflict Sikh society deals with the trauma of the past, is the suggestion.
When I visited the temple in the late 1990’s, the obsessive washing and cleaning of the floors, and every part of the temple – came across like the group choreography of Lady Macbeth’s washing, washing, washing of the blood from her hands. Blood that seemingly could never be washed off.
‘In India you see the most horrible and the most beautiful things’ say the filmmakers. So here we have two parallel stories – the Belgian filmmakers’ story – the beautiful side of ‘seva’ and langar that according to them is Sikhism. And one that makes it impossible for most Indians visiting the temple to think of ’seva’ and ‘langar’ in the Golden temple without making the connection to blood.
The third story reconciles these two narratives above and it is mine: the narrative of blood in the Golden Temple, combines with that of peace and the langar truly lives up to its aims of eating a simple meal in a community. In other words, it is not about either/or. It is about and/and. Like much of India is for me.
I was brought up by my Sikh parents to understand that Sikhism came about to challenge the gross inequalities in Hinduism. And since this is what I saw in my family and community, I believed them. Now, many years later, I see the same message in this film. I moved to the Netherlands a decade ago and began to work on projects in and about India. It was on one of my research trips that I learned that there are outcasts also in Sikhism. That not so far from the Golden Temple, there are Sikh temples with separate entrances and water sources for the outcast and untouchable Sikhs. I asked the filmmakers while they were making this film in India, did anyone Sikh or non-Sikh ever mention these outcasts or untouchables within Sikhism and did they know about it?
They said no.
The filmmakers tell us they see thousands of people making a pilgrimage to the temple to purify themselves. They don’t say of what. So could the images of devotees taking a dip in the pond be about ritual cleansing? The images of the film tell of the hundreds of people involved almost round the clock in the cleaning, polishing and washing of the temple along with the washing of the utensils. They look like they are purifying the place along with themselves. The filmmaker describes how the plates are washed seven times each. Thousands and thousands of them all day long.
I have a couple of suggestions to make to those of us wanting to tell stories about India:
– Orientalism is out of date. Lets stop ‘exoticising’ and start looking. Not just at what others saw before us but what is before us to see here and now with our own independent and unique eyes and tongues.
– Subjective truths are exactly that – subjective truths. The langar (community kitchen) isn’t Sikhism. It’s the Sikhism of the Belgian filmmakers of ‘Himself he cooks’ and possibly of some others.
It is convenient for people like me from the upper castes (yes Sikhism has a caste system) not to admit that almost no major religion in India has freed itself of caste. My parents lived in denial. I’m not. The opening film of the film festival I organized in Amsterdam is ‘India Untouched’ by K. Stalin. See it. It has images of those Sikh temples with separate entrances for untouchable Sikhs. And for people from this part of the world wanting to tell inspiring stories about India, I understand that making poetic images and ‘leaving it to the viewer to decide’ makes you sound civilized, liberal and democratic. However, be aware that your images and your selective histories could propagate in their own ways the orientalist view of India. The magic of it, the wonder of it, incredible India and not in the least the shining India. When you do this, you add your stories to the existing dominant narratives of inclusion and exclusion. But if you need any proof, it is plain to any eye – outsider and insider that the horrors of India are carried on the backs, shoulders and lives of a chosen few. The rest, like you and I are invited to join in the choreography of the community kitchen and marvel at the wonder that is India.