The new Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie You Got Mail opened across the USA, this weekend. A soppy sentimental rehash of several older pictures, repackaged with new technology, this film will no doubt reap in megabucks for the studios, as well as for America Online, the internet service provider, whose messaging service announcement makes the movie's title contemporaneous.
Last week, another film dealing with mail premiered in New York. This was India born-US based Nandini Sikand's hour-long lyrical documentary Don't Fence Me In. And while this film will probably not be playing in a Cineplex near you, it has a far more interesting story. In January 1996, Nandini fell in love with Mumbaikar Deep Parikh, and six months later, they decided to get married. Her mother, Krishna Sikand, couldn't make it to the US for the wedding but made her presence felt through a series of letters. These letters from a mother to a daughter provided Nandini the germ of an idea. Six months later, when she visited India forher formal wedding, she decided to use the letters and her wedding ceremony as the touchstone to tell the story of her mother's life.
Krishna is a poet, writer, and teacher of English. A mistress of the beauty of language, she agreed to her daughter's request to participate in this film and over the next few months holed herself up in Calcutta's Bengal Club and wrote a series of stream of consciousness chapters detailing her thoughts, experiences, and inherited culture. This, Nandini edited into a linear thread and interwove it with old family photographs, damaged Super-8 footage and specially-shot location sequences to create a cinematic tapestry that is part lyrical, part impressionistic, wholly cinematic.
The film is about an ordinary life yet charmed in the ways all such lives are. "When I first came to study and then make films in America, I was made aware of how South Asian experiences are not fully represented in American cinema," says Nandini. "Through efforts like this documentary I am keen toadvance the understanding of the American minority experience -- through stories that celebrate the experiences of a multicultural society. One way of doing so was to tell a personal story and move it towards the universal."
Nandini cut her teeth as a film-maker with a film on Fatehpur Sikri, while still a student. She then went on to work in television as a researcher and production consultant. In 1994, she made Bhangra Wrap which attempted to examine how diasporic South Asians felt a need to appropriate their musical heritage to find a voice of their own. Sikand's talents are already being appreciated by the film fraternity and she is excited about new projects in the wings.
That Fire is due back in Indian cinema halls is news that will be greeted with jubilation by many New Yorker-Mumbaikars. Over dinners, drinks and coffees, each and every expat in this city has been telling me about how worried they are about what's going on back "home". News of extortion rackets, murders, societysuicides, armed-guard weddings, homophobia and horror of horrors -- Shiv Sainiks in VIP Frenchies was enough to believe that Nostradamus' prediction of the end being nigh was sadly coming true.
Yesterday, I went on a nostalgic, conducted tour of Manhattan nightlife titled `The Speakeasy Era'. It was a fascinating tour for it brought home to me the similarities between what New York society went through in the 1920s and '30s and what Mumbai is going through in the 1990s and sadly seems fated to suffer for another decade or so. It was deja vu-esque to visit the existing old nightclubs where the tour guide showed us the doors with little peep holes where bouncers would vet the customers and let in only the connected, the trusted, and the rich. He then took us to the back alleys and described the way cops would be paid off on one side and bootleg booze would be transferred in from the other.
It was all quite reminiscent of my own voyeuristic past, 10 years in Mumbai -- the nights at Tiger Tims, Black Orchid,Ghetto, Voodoo Bar, Copa Cabana and Fashion Bistro. Nights when you may decide to leave at two am but have to wait another 30 minutes inside the bar because the police van was outside the bar. Nights when you had to wait an extra 10 minutes for your vodka because a special order of drinks was being prepared for the coppers outside. Nights when the 18-year-old son of a well-known right wing politician was snorting cocaine worth five times his father's official monthly salary through a rolled up new "Gandhi" note. Nights when you would be stupid to watch an old Edward G Robinson film on TNT when you could vicariously live it at your neighbourhood bar. Nights you would be scared to acknowledge in daylight hours. Nights that become your days. Nights that are your days because the days are no longer your own.
Now for a Cole Porter song: Gimme hope .. . lotsa hope / Don't fence me in.
Riyad Wadia, avant garde film-maker, is currently at home in New York.
Copyright © 1998 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.