“I’m not sure whether I’m here as an employer, a friend or a filmmaker. The lines have blurred.” —Filmmaker Nishtha Jain
Lakshmi was employed as a domestic worker in the home of documentary filmmaker Nishtha Jain in Mumbai, India when she was only 16 years old. But it wasn’t until Lakshmi was 20 that Jain enjoined her young maid to come out from the shadows and step in front of the camera’s lens. Lakshmi readily agreed to the idea. “My life really deserves a film,” she says.
Thus begins an on- and off-screen journey for Lakshmi and Jain, which culminates in the revealing documentary LAKSHMI AND ME. The film is an intimate yet critical look at the bond between an employer and domestic worker in modern-day India, where one’s status, relationships and livelihood are often still ordained by the ancient caste system.
At the film’s outset, the basic paradox of modern-day Indian culture is exposed. As an emerging international powerhouse, India’s millions of upwardly mobile, professional women are freed from housework and domestic chores. No longer do they have to dust, sweep, do laundry, cook or even walk their children to school. Why? These recent professionals have a bai, or woman to help with some of these chores—a woman who comes from a less privileged class.
Like most domestic workers in India, Lakshmi works nonstop—10 hours a day, seven days a week, in six different households. She works without days off, without complaining and without bitterness—all for the paltry monthly pay of 600 rupees or so from each home (the filmmaker confides that is what she herself would pay for a fancy dinner out). “But that’s what everyone pays,” Jain rationalizes at the film’s outset, in a voice-over commentary that follows her personal journey from impartial onlooker to—if not exactly friend—at least a sympathetic advocate.
As the film progresses, Lakshmi gains confidence and invites the filmmaker Jain ever deeper into her personal life. The growing intimacy between the two women—one a middle-class professional who enjoys all the modern conveniences, the other an impoverished daughter of a drunk widower with nine children, all of whom must use a community toilet—is a remarkable turn of events in a hierarchical society where class lines build impenetrable walls.
LAKSHMI AND ME is a story about lines blurring and lives impacting one another, despite the rigidity of archaic traditions meant to keep them apart. The filmmaker enters her subject’s world, only to question the authenticity of her own attitudes; the film’s subject is empowered by the light shone on her in the filmmaking process. At the end of their remarkable year-and-a-half-long journey together, both women are forced to question that which they’ve taken for granted, while acknowledging the symbiotic roles of mistress and maid, subject and filmmaker, speaker and listener.
Filmmakers Nishtha Jain and Smriti Nevatia provided an update in January 2009 on what some of the people featured in LAKSHMI AND ME have been doing since filming ended:
Lakshmi still works in several homes in Mumbai, but no longer for Nishtha Jain, who has moved away from the neighborhood. Lakshmi also assists her husband, Krishna, in his job of collecting the trash from every apartment in a residential complex and sweeping the stairs and landings.
Lakshmi’s sister Saras looks after the children of a middle-class family. Jayshree, her other sister who appeared in the film, is married and not working at present. Their father, Ramalingam Devar Alagar, continues to be unemployed and still drinks a lot. Lakshmi’s daughter is named Pavitra (the Pure One); she’s two-and-a-half and will go to “play school” soon.
Filmmaker Nishtha Jain is completing an earlier film and is looking for funding for her next project.
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