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Where EAST meets the Northwest

UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIP. Indian filmmaker Nishtha Jain (left) documents her friendship with her housemaid, Lakshmi (right), in Lakshmi and Me, a documentary airing March 27 on Oregon Public Broadcasting Plus. (Photo/Rakesh Haridas, courtesy of the Independent Television Service)

From The Asian Reporter, V19, #12 (March 24, 2009), page 9 & 11.

Lakshmi and Me documents Indian filmmaker’s friendship with her maid

Lakshmi and Me

Directed by Nishtha Jain

Produced by Raintree Films

Presented by the Independent Television Service for Independent Lens

By Allison Rupp

As a "born feminist," Indian filmmaker Nishtha Jain was determined never to touch housework. So it seemed natural, when she began living alone, to hire a housemaid like every other middle-class household in Mumbai. Not until she began to film Lakshmi and Me, a documentary on the life of her part-time maid, did Jain begin to realize the contradiction in her thinking — and discover a friend in the process.

Jain’s subject is Lakshmi, a 21-year-old woman from a low caste who giggles girlishly when speaking to the camera, but whose stony features betray a grim perspective on life when she forgets its presence. Lakshmi’s lot in life is to work 10 hours a day, seven days a week as a maid in other people’s homes — wiping the floors, washing the curtains, and doing the dishes. Jain pays Lakshmi 600 rupees a month for her work, less than a middle-class person would spend on a nice dinner.

Much of the time, Jain trains her camera below knee level, a telling indication of where Lakshmi spends her time. While often only her employer’s feet are visible, Lakshmi can be seen scrubbing floors on her haunches or eating lunch cross-legged next to her employer’s couch.

"What sin did I commit to be born a woman? The things I have to do!" she says with a mild laugh.

Despite Jain’s gentle prodding, Lakshmi is reluctant to open up at first, even disappearing for two months without notice when she becomes pregnant and elopes with a man from a different, slightly lower caste. When she returns, the extent to which the caste system permeates Indian society becomes apparent as her family, rallied by her half-drunk father, spurns her for marrying an outsider.

"If we were eating in a restaurant, he would have to sit outside," her father says with a disgusted snort.

But Lakshmi is headstrong, moving in with her husband’s family, insisting she keep her baby even though he suggests abortion, and continuing to work until her seventh month of pregnancy while battling tuberculosis.

Lakshmi’s employers, a handful of educated, fleshy women, play solitaire or watch television as she works rhythmically in the background. "Destiny," repeats one woman over and over when she talks of Lakshmi’s position, as if trying to convince herself.

Jain’s unexpectedly drab footage contrasts the typically color-saturated and exotic images associated with India, and she uses images of hands and feet to a powerful effect. Lifelong housemaids display the wounds of their trade: swollen hands and blistered feet. At the climax of the hour-long film, Lakshmi, writhing in the pain of childbirth, grips the hands of her husband and of Jain herself.

The film ends abruptly after drawing the viewer into Lakshmi’s life so successfully, attempting to tie up a number of loose ends in just a few short sentences. Lakshmi’s involvement in a housemaids’ union is simply forgotten.

Instead, Jain attempts to infuse Lakshmi’s story with the hope of a friendship struck between employer and servant, a friendship that even Jain questions in the end as Lakshmi’s husband hands over the hospital bills. Is this truly a caste-defying friendship, or has Jain merely changed from an indifferent employer into a beneficent one? It’s a difficult question to answer in an hour, making it clear that confronting caste-ism is a slow process requiring more than just a change of heart.

Lakshmi and Me airs Friday, March 27 from 11:00pm to midnight on Oregon Public Broadcasting Plus. For more information, call (503) 293-1982 or visit <www.opb.org>. To learn more about the film, visit <www.lakshmiandme.com>.