Lakshmi and Me

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Three of my former students, now in Grade 8, facilitated a community discussion about the film, Lakshmi and Me on Sunday.  The documentary, filmed in Bombay, India, is about filmmaker Nishtha Jain’s relashionship with her maid.  The film is a beautiful and honest analysis of boundaries– what boundaries exist, and where and when boundaries blur and change.  

Lakshmi, I believe, is a most courageous woman.  Perhaps her options leave her without much to lose, and only something to gain from her participation in this film.  However, she survives her life despite the odds, and despite the fact that she will likely never overcome the poverty she was born into.  Throughout this film, I needed to remind myself that she did have choices– to not participate in the film, to terminate her pregnancy, to stop working, to take her medicine, to stay in her father’s house… the list goes on. In the end, she chooses to take risks. And, as many people in the audience posited, those risks may have saved her life.  

Nishtha Jain begins behind the camera, only to emerge by the film’s end, as vulnerable and exposed as her subject. Jain puts her country on display in a way that highlights one of its most criticized cultural features, the caste system.  She also puts her own life up for critique, in however the observer may deem her responsible for the continued existence of caste in this century. 

I was proud of my students, for their willingness to engage with material that was moving and, literally, foreign to them.  But for a brief introduction to India in Grade 6, these three students entered the conversation with only their raw reaction to the film. Yet, they were willing to stand in front of an audience of over one hundred people, many from outside of our school, and co-facilitate a discussion.  They were willing to share their impressions and encourage others to do the same.  With such deep subject matter, I was in awe of their bravery and poise, standing on stage in the midst of conversation that was both complex and emotional.  

Finally, I learned much from the open and honest reactions of the audience.  India is a nation that experiences great diversity of language, food, religious practice, and politics.  Though there were many common repsonses, amongst the audience, I sensed a great difference of opinion in how to interpret the film.  What was remarkable was the ease at which people discussed their opinions with respect and courtesy.  While some were moved to tears, others expressed optimism and hope. 

I watched the film three times.  The first time, I watched Lakshmi and Me by myself and I was moved to silence.  The second time, I viewed it with my students and their parents and I was moved to share my reactions.  The third time, I watched the film with an audience of mostly South Asian viewers and listened.  Each time I saw the film differently, and each time I felt the scenes in a different way. Though, each time I watched it, I must admit I left the film feeling melancholy.  I am going to focus on the hopeful messages I heard from the audience and the inspiration of Lakshmi to move forward and find a better life.  For the many people in her position, not least of which is her small child, I hope that the conditions improve.  After watching this film, it is certainly difficult to ignore the need for it to change.