A Year in India

Student Photogs
April 29, 2009, 9:37 am
Filed under: In the Field | Tags: ,

Below, a few pictures that my students took for a photo essay they’re making about their neighborhood. Click on the thumbnails for a better view.

Women chatting in the street

Women chatting in the street

A mosque under construction

A mosque under construction

Open sewage beside homes

Open sewage beside homes

Kids playing cricket

Kids playing cricket


A Foreigner’s Gaze
April 27, 2009, 11:21 am
Filed under: In the Field | Tags: , ,

In addition to my Adobe Youth Voices (AYV) work, I’ve started a few outside film projects in Bangalore. One is a promotional video for mChek, a mobile payments company. My friend Valerie is working to bring mChek’s mobile payment technology to the bottom tier of India’s economic pyramid. Using mChek’s platform, people living in slums can pay bills via cell phone.

I’m shooting most of mChek’s video footage in urban Bangalore slums. The camera draws quite a bit of attention in these areas. During an interview with a shopkeeper, an elderly vegetable vendor walked by and started yelling at Valerie and me. We did our best to continue the interview, but both of us were curious as to what was angering him (we don’t understand Kannada, the local language that he was speaking).

Later on, Clara, another mChek employee, told me what the man had said: ‘’Why do you Americans come in here with your cameras like this? You just film our poor lives and then go back to America saying, ‘This is India!’”

The man brought up a conflict that’s often on my mind: though I love observing and documenting cultures different than my own, my foreign perspective colors the nature of this observation, this documentation. In my mind, there’s not much wrong with the inevitable insertion of my perspective, but how can I best treat my subjects in a sensitive, respectful way? And would my subjects themselves tell a “truer” version of their stories? How, then, can an open, honest partnership develop between filmmaker and subject?

When I ask myself these questions, I realize that my work with AYV is one answer. AYV allows me to share skills with my students so that they can tell their stories. In this way, an exchange is taking place: I teach a set of skills (shaped by my individual perspective), and my students are better able to express their views (which influence my perspective on their lives, on Indian culture, etc.).

I’d love for this kind of exchange to exist not only in AYV’s education setting, but also in my freelance work. It would be rewarding on many levels to further involve my subjects and their communities in the production of films being made about them.

FSM in India
April 19, 2009, 3:30 pm
Filed under: Video | Tags: , ,

Mona, a good friend of mine from Chicago, recently came to visit Bangalore. Mona and I used to work together at Free Spirit Media (FSM), a youth media education non-profit serving Chicago’s West and South Sides. After FSM, Mona, like me, came to India to teach documentary film production to underserved youth. Her project, The Modern Story, is based in Hyderabad.

One of the best parts of Mona’s trip was revisiting our time at FSM: reminiscing about our students and coworkers, comparing our India youth media experiences with those we had in Chicago, and watching some of the new films that FSM participants produced this past fall.

Below, a video that two FSM youth made about Obama’s presidential candidacy. The students were given the opportunity to travel to Denver, attend the Democratic National Convention, and shoot the following short documentary called “Hope in America.” It makes me proud to see these kids using the skills they’ve learned at FSM in such a thoughtful way.

Ambedkar’s Birthday
April 16, 2009, 1:15 pm
Filed under: Culture | Tags: , ,

April 14th marked the birthday of Bhimrao Ambedkar, a leader of India’s Dalit movement. Dalit, meaning “oppressed” or “broken into pieces,” is the name of India’s lowest caste. The Dalit community faces many social atrocities including segregation, violence, and inhumane occupations (for example, manual scavenging, which involves cleaning human feces from toilets and sewers by hand).

Ambedkar, a lawyer by profession, was the first recognized Dalit leader. He believed that the caste system was India’s greatest social evil. Amongst other accomplishments, he was the first of his caste to be educated abroad and he was one of the principal authors of the Indian constitution in 1950. Under his pen, the constitution gives equal rights to all individuals regardless of caste.

Many upper class Indians opposed Ambedkar’s leadership. Gandhi also took issue with some of his ideas. Most prominently, the two clashed over the role of the village in Indian society. (Ambedkar was bold in calling villages primitive, ignorant, and too closely bound to caste.) Nonetheless, Ambedkar brought a glimpse of hope to Dalits: not only did he work for their rights, but he also set a strong example for them by transcending the social caste into which he was born.

On Ambedkar’s birthday, I was working on a photo essay with students from Tank Garden, a Muslim school. Halfway through our class, we took a break to hear a few teachers speak about Ambedkar. Because the teachers’ speeches were mainly in Urdu (which I unfortunately can’t understand), I had the chance to observe. My students – who themselves fall towards the bottom of India’s social pyramid – seemed captivated. I wonder what was running through their minds as they listened.

Later, the Tank Garden teachers talked to me about how the Dalit “stigma” has changed in their lifetime. When they were in grade school, their Dalit peers were not served water during lunchtime. Often, teachers and higher-caste students did not speak to or even look at Dalits. Today, discriminatory practices as such still exist in some places. The teachers told me that what has changed for them is that they now recognize and acknowledge the negative nature of these practices. The pace may be gradual, but Ambedkar’s mindset is influencing theirs.

My friend Ekta, another AIF fellow, is working at Navsarjan, an NGO focused on Dalit human rights issues. Check out her blog to read some fascinating stories about her on-the-ground field work in Gujarat.

April 9, 2009, 5:35 pm
Filed under: Culture | Tags:

Playing Holi

A few weeks ago, I celebrated Holi, India’s festival of colors.  As the tradition goes, people run around outside throwing colored water and powder at one another.  I spent the afternoon playing Holi (and eating a delicious Indian meal) at my close family friend Rashmi’s house.

When my friends and I asked Rashmi to tell us about the meaning behind Holi, she explained that she loves the holiday because it’s a great equalizer.  She described Holi as a festival that Indians of all socio-economic levels love to play.  As romantic as it sounds, I see her point. On Holi, you notice people from all walks of life out on the streets splashing color at each other.  It’s a sight to see, and a tradition I hope to bring back to the US when I return!

More photos here.

Portraits of Bangalore
April 6, 2009, 3:51 pm
Filed under: American India Foundation | Tags: ,

During the course of the AIF fellowship, each fellow writes an entry for the program’s blog. I recently posted a piece about some of the characters that have influenced my time in India.

The entry:

For my AIF Fellowship, I’ve been placed with Adobe Youth Voices (AYV) in Bangalore. AYV is a global initiative aimed to empower underserved youth using digital tools such as video, digital art, and photography. The Bangalore AYV program is running in 10 government-run high schools and 5 slum-focused NGOs. At each site, my coworkers and I run hands-on video production classes. The documentaries are entirely student-produced, meaning the youth develop the story, shoot the footage, and edit the final videos themselves. Each class of 30 students will have produced one documentary film and one photo essay by the end of April. Amongst others, this year’s project topics include slum life, electricity wastage, and elders’ childhood memories.

My fellowship has been incredibly rewarding because of the people that have shaped it. For this blog post, I’ll highlight a few of these characters.


ChandanChandan and me

Each AIF fellow is placed with a mentor, a work colleague meant to guide and support throughout the 10-month fellowship.  My mentor, Chandan, has become my India flagship: my day-to-day work companion, my window into local Bangalore life, my close friend.

The day begins, and I’m riding on the back of Chandan’s motorbike, past tea stalls, malls, offices, slums, gardens, garbage, mansions, street vendors; alongside rickshaws, buses, cows, cars, bikes; on roads that are dirt, paved, rocky, full of potholes; beside office-goers, beggars, school children, construction workers, shoppers, dog-walkers, wanderers. The wind is on our faces.

I find myself in an old Bangalore neighborhood, at the end of a quiet street: Chandan’s home. I slip off my sandals and enter the casual, comfortable space. To my right, the Kannada news blares on the TV. To my left, Chandan’s brother, seated in front of an altar, prays. Chandan and I sit on the floor in his office and work. Between work, we talk about everything under the sun: family, graduate school, life in the US, Gandhi, the future, our students. Something small tips us off, and we start laughing hysterically: our sides ache, we can’t breathe, it is the kind of laughter that is raw and rich, that doesn’t really ever cease.

Chandan’s mother calls us for lunch. She cooks the best South Indian food I’ve tasted, and I tell her so. We smile, we talk, she tells me to eat more. In his booming voice, Chandan’s father asks when we’re going to get dosas again, when we’ll make our way to our favorite hole-in-the-wall joint, where neither the décor nor the perfect, secret recipe has changed for 70 years.

In the evening, Chandan, his cousins, and I go to a concert. We sit in a small hall as the sounds of the tabla, sitar, and flute surround us. I marvel at the technicality of the Indian classical music. Chandan and his cousins sing along, sigh in unison, tap their fingers to the intricate beat.

Chandan has made me comfortable with a family-centric, local side of Bangalore that I would not otherwise easily know as a foreigner. Much more than a work mentor, Chandan is a friend who has connected me to this chaotic, intriguing city.


MubeenMubeen in her neighborhood

I’ve had the pleasure of learning from and growing close to my students. Take, for example, Mubeen, a fiery, 17-year-old Muslim girl. She led her class in making a documentary about the differences between the ways female and male children are treated in her community. Her academic determination stems largely from her single mother’s support.

Recently, Mubeen invited me to her home. Her five-person family lives in a house with a modest living room, one tiny bedroom, and a small corner kitchen. There is no proper plumbing, and there is one light in the living room.

When I arrived, Mubeen’s mother seated me on the couch, pinched me on the cheeks, and served me fruit custard, mutton biryani, tea, and biscuits. The two of them showed me family photos. They asked me questions I’ve come to find normal here in India: What are your education qualifications? Are you married? (My response followed by a look of shock, and then: Why not? But how old are you?!) What is your father’s name? What religion are you? Are you really Indian? You look too American!

These questions, I gather, place me in the tricky Indian social web, the framework that defines – to be blunt – who falls “above” whom.

In a small way, my time at Mubeen’s home tears away at that web. She and I are pulling at a strand and throwing it away. We’re messing up the system.

As we sat drinking tea, Mubeen put it this way: “Meera Madam, I feel so happy that you came to my house. You see, in India, I am very low, very poor, a Muslim. People know me this way. People like you don’t come to see people like me. They don’t come into the homes of poors.” She continued, gesturing. “You see, you are water, and I am color. Colored powder. Usually the water wants to stay clean, clear. But you know that if you add me, the water becomes something else, something nice, with color. Like green water, or black water.”


KarthikStudents shooting their film

My students have featured all kinds of people in their films: slum-dwellers, parents, shopkeepers, peers, teachers, activists, etc. These characters’ stories are glimpses into this city and into my students’ minds.

An example: at Christel House India, a privately funded school for slum children, the youth based their film’s main character on one of themselves, a boy named Karthik. Because their film dealt with a sensitive topic – Karthik’s poor relationship with his parents – they decided to scrap the documentary medium and create a fictional account. Out of this vision came a fictionalized version of Karthik, a teenage slum-dweller whose parents neglect and beat him. Instead of being consumed by his family problems, Karthik delves into his studies, leaning on his peers, his teachers, and his education to support him.

Initially, I struggled with Karthik. I didn’t understand why the students wanted to turn his story into fiction. Wouldn’t a documentary be more powerful and direct? One of the Christel House teachers explained that the topic was touchier than I grasped. In reality, Karthik’s father is an alcoholic and can’t hold a job to support his family. His mother has therefore turned to prostitution, which has created marital tension in their home. In the midst of it all, they are neglecting and abusing their son. The teacher told me to think about Karthik’s position: his parents might see the film and get angry about their portrayal, his peers might look down on him for his family problems, and he himself might find the issues too difficult to talk about on camera. I realized that fiction is a solid, healthy way for the students to express and deal with such situations.

My struggle continued, though, during film production. There were too many aspects of the film I didn’t understand: Is Karthik dreaming or is this real? Is the film becoming melodramatic? Shouldn’t Karthik’s actions have defined motivations behind them? Why isn’t this clear?

Again, my students’ perspectives slowly sunk in. What was spilling out on camera, in all of its murkiness and abstraction, was their perspective. And that’s what my work in India is all about: allowing youth who may not always have a voice – or whose voice may be suppressed because people like me don’t understand it or give it a chance – to express, to have some freedom, to feel proud of their voices. (Later, one of the students told me that his friend started crying when he saw the film, confirmation that the story touches these kids’ lives.)

Like the youth, I am proud of the final Christel House video. I hope that the students learned half as much from me as I learned from them during the filmmaking process. The video:

Balram & Barack

balrambarakOne of the video topics proposed by
students during a brainstorming session

Living in Bangalore has inspired me to read about India in hopes of understanding what makes her tick. Simultaneously, given the US’s fresh administration change this past November, I’ve avidly been reading more about my own country. The intersection of this reading brings me to my final two characters: Balram and Barack.

I’m currently in the middle of The White Tiger, Aravind Adigas’s biting novel about the relationship between an Indian chauffeur, Balram, and his “master,” Ashok. During his journey from his village to Delhi, Balram explores India’s quiet acceptance of a social structure that allows for blatant (and at times horrifying) social inequalities to exist.

I’m also in the midst of Barack Obama’s second novel, The Audacity of Hope. What a contrast to be reading the two in parallel.

Speaking to the idea of common American values, Obama writes, “… The essential idea behind the Declaration – that we are born into this world free, all of us; that each of us arrives with a bundle of rights that can’t be taken away by any person or any state without just cause; that through our own agency we can, and must, make our lives what we will – is one that every American understands. It orients us, sets our course, each and every day. Indeed, the value of individual freedom is so deeply ingrained in us that we tend to take it for granted.” (p. 53)

Could such a blanket statement be written about India? I would answer no. India has taken the “essential idea” that frames my world and shaken it up, pushed it this way and that, turned it on its head. Each time I think the idea has settled into a version applicable to India, it once again gets rustled up – flipped over so that it’s not what I thought it was. It is at once stimulating and frustrating to live in a country where my perspective is constantly challenged.

In The White Tiger, Balram often points out the strange contradictions that define his relationship with his master. At one moment, Ashok is calling Balram a “good, family man,” patting him on the back, giving him a little extra cash. The next moment, he’s cursing him for the stupidity that characterizes his “people.” On one hand, Ashok treats Balram “well” by paying him 3,000 rupees a month (US $60). On the other hand, he finds it normal that Balram is living below his fancy apartment in a tiny room infested with cockroaches. And the reverse as well: Balram scorns Ashok for seeking out a prostitute after his divorce, but yearns to sleep with one himself. He admires Ashok’s thoughtfulness, his composure, yet he steals money from him.

Some explain India’s contradictory character by way of the caste system, others by way of the Western influence that is quickly pervading, others by way of the clash between urban development and a population that lives and works largely in rural settings, and others by way of religion.

Too often, though, these reasons are followed by, “But that’s just the way it is in India,” as if the reasons are the end of a tunnel, shut behind a locked door, etched into cement. Too often I hear people say “Oh, but if you talk to people in the slums, you’ll find that they’re actually happy!” (Right, tell that to the slum-dweller my students interviewed whose child is dying of a sickness she doesn’t recognize, the same one who said, “Just show me a way to a better lifestyle, and I’ll take it!”)

Misuse of government funds could explain India’s staggering contradictions (one of the most obvious being that while India’s economic growth rate is 6-8%, 43% of children under age 5 are still malnourished). But what drives the mentality – the lack of values, in my mind – that allows this extent of government corruption to exist? Where is India’s sense of social responsibility? The idea of social responsibility may be a concept “Western” in nature, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t apply to India.

I’m not yet at a point in my work, in my studies, or in my historical understanding of India to comment on why India is such a confusing, conflicting country. What I can reflect on are moments. Walking to work and seeing a child splashing, playing in what is literally a sewage drain. Watching a woman, half my size and shoeless, lifting bricks to build a shopping mall she won’t be allowed to enter. Seeing a hunched-over vegetable vendor getting barked at (it’s a matter of tone) to gather the “right” tomatoes and place them one by one in his client’s shiny car.

An instant answer, I know, is unfathomable. What I hope for, though, is a change in mentality, some sort of awakening in the minds of everyday people, so that we stop looking around and saying “But that’s just the way it is in India” and start asking why, start feeling a bit unsettled, start seeing things through Balram’s eyes, start searching for a belief in values, the way Obama so relentlessly does.