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Beyond the Ramu kakas
It isn't very often that Indian filmmakers choose to look at the world of domestic workers. Their roles in movies are limited to fleeting and stereotypical appearances as the long-suffering Ramu kakas or as cantankerous bais.
Prashant Nair, however, has always been fascinated with the nuances of urban India's relationship with its domestic help. It is this interest that drove him to make Delhi in a Day, his debut film released this Friday. The movie, which looks at the interaction between a family and its long line of retainers, has already pocketed a slew of awards.
"It's a story almost everyone can relate to, it's something they've been witness to - the gnawing gap between the haves and have-nots. And the way the latter suffers in silence and, often, lives in the shadow of abuse and exploitation, " says Nair.
"My work is not a documentary but a first full-length film - a serious story dealt with in a lighter vein. It's a dark comedy to be precise, " says the 34-year-old filmmaker who mostly grew up outside India (his parents worked with the Indian Foreign Service), but travelled to Delhi every year on vacation. Those few weeks every year gave him "enough exposure to be intrigued and amused by the over-the-top lifestyle of the nouveau-riche in many parts of the city. And particularly by the way they handled (and exploited) their helps at home".
Nair, who studied to be an engineer at Purdue University, changed tracks and started work with a social media company in Paris soon after. But filmmaking beckoned and he did an intensive filmmaking course at New York University. "Other than the short film I made there, I had no other experience in the medium - no connections with the film world - to help me make a start, " he says. And then, sometime in his early 30s, he decided to take the plunge.
Nair's plot is driven both by personal experiences as well as research. The film is about a fictitious Bhatia family living in a swanky farmhouse in Delhi. Having risen from relative obscurity to obscene wealth "not necessarily through fair means", the family consists of the jovial patriarch, Mukund (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), his much-younger, but domineering, wife Kalpana (Lillete Dubey) and their two children. Also part of the film is Victor Banerjee, essaying the role of Kalpana's father, who is disapproving of the family's ways.
Helping the clan run the sprawling house is an array of domestic helps including the young, 19-yearold Rohini (Anjali Patil). The action starts when a British visitor, Jasper (played by British TV and theatre artiste Lee Williams), walks into the home and on the first day itself finds his money stolen. The suspect, not surprisingly, is the domestic staff that is given 24 hours to return the money or face consequences. "The film centres around the drama that subsequently unfolds, " says Nair.
Thrilled with the response the film has already garnered, he gives full credit for its success to his actors. Despite the well-crafted script, the actors - Kulbhushanji and Lillete, both Delhiites - came up with wonderful insights into their characters, says Nair. "And there are many scenes in which Lee's natural reactions to things - like his first outing in the city - have been incorporated in the film, " says Nair.
The idea, Nair insists, was not to trash Delhi or its upper crust. "Such things happen everywhere. We just want to make people aware and maybe help in reducing the chasm that exists between people from these two diverse strata of society, " he says.
Dubey, who has always been open to working with new talent, compares the film to the Oscar-winner The Help. "This one too explores a sensitive subject but in a more contemporary milieu. But although one film or one book will not really change things, the film will definitely create sympathy, even empathy and a new way of looking at things, " she says.
London-based Lee Williams who plays the British backpacker Jasper in the film, laughs when he recalls his month-long shooting stint in Delhi. "Despite all my homework - watching the list of Bollywood films Prashant had recommended, to reading some books on India - I was completely overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of Delhi, " he says. And like his character (" who was tired of his 'grey' life in London" ), he too enjoyed "the colours and adventure that helped Jasper reconnect" with himself. The former Calvin Klein model is now hoping to "do more Indian movies - maybe a costume drama or a Merchant Ivory kind of film. Or even typical Bollywood fare - after all, I can sing and dance as well, " he says.
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