It was deep at night when my cousin got a phone call in his apartment in Lansing, Michigan. It was December and an unusually cold night and in those prehistoric days of wired phones he grew numb hearing the news – my uncle passed away a short while back in their Kolkata home. Another instance was that of my friend’s father having had a heart-attack and he had to rush back from Los Angeles, California. After the arduous 36 hours long journey across more than half of the globe my friend arrived too late. He did not get to see his father. These are two fleeting images which sweep my mind every time I see Mira Nair’s The Namesake. It also takes me 12 winters back to the chill down the spine when the phone rang after 11 pm and the caller id showed an Indian number in my quaint Minneapolis home.
Why do I remember these while watching The Namesake’s gamut of emotional situations; particularly the moment when Ashoke breaks the news of her father’s death to Ashima? Probably not because of this singular image, but rather, as a collective whole, it makes me feel haunted, sad and lingeringly unhappy. It awakens me to the fact that one of the several uncertainties in life an immigrant experiences is the possibility of not getting to meet loved ones.
The Namesake changes its narrative down the story-line by concentrating on Gogol, the son of Ashoke and Ashima, and soon enters the terrain of confusion that first-generation immigrants are compelled to live with. This confusion stemming from a lack of identity is probably inherent in all immigrants who essentially migrate to a country that differs largely from their own in terms of culture, religion and most importantly physical appearance. A second generation American friend of Japanese origin once chuckled how his little daughter was all tears when a curator of a museum she was visiting asked an apparently simple question –“How are you finding America, little girl?” It reminds me of Nair’s earlier film Mississippi Masala where Jay’s childhood friend Okelo tells him “Africa is for Africans…Black Africans.” This indeed shatters Jay whose Indian ancestors moved to Uganda and he, born in Uganda thinks himself as “first an Ugandan and then an Indian”. Much later Jay tells his grown up daughter Mina, “people stick to their own kind” which reflects how the Indian community like other migrants tend to ghettoize themselves.
Similar cross-cultural complexities are depicted in other films which deserve mention here – America so beautiful by Babak Shokrian on Iranian immigration to the US; the push-pull of familial bonds and clashing cultures in the comic drama Chutney Popcorn by Nisha Ganatra and Krutin Patel’s ABCD [‘American-born Confused Desi’] or Bala Rajasekharuni’s Green Card Fever about an Indian immigrant who is stretched to all lengths for a green card.
Pietro Germi’s [1914-1974] 1950 film of neo-realistic genre Il cammino della speranza [The Path to Hope] traces the lives of a group of Southern Italy’s mining workers and the abject poverty they are inflicted with. Seduced by a pimp they plan to move to France in search of a better future. It is indeed one of the early Italian films on the emigration theme. In September 2015, when three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body was found in the Turkish shores, the world wept with his father Abdullah. The Syrian family who left the war-torn nation was living in Turkey in poverty and without a valid identity. Thus they had planned on moving to Greece. In a statement to the police, Abdullah had recounted how he had to pay the smugglers twice to take him and his family to Greece but their efforts had failed. They had then rowed a boat on their own which eventually capsized, drowning Abdullah’s wife and both his sons. Doesn’t it seem like Germi’s film is resonating after six decades?
The history of colonialism in many of European countries, primarily France and Netherlands, transpires into immigration from these colonies, mainly from Northern Africa including Morocco. But the film that captivates me with the issues of migration in Europe is German master Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul . It is a film which showcases how the light-skinned Europeans at times marginalise the migrant other –– notably the Arabs and Africans. And even before this, in 1968, Fassbinder’s Katelmacher deals with a Greek migrant’s unsettled life in a German cityscape.
Migration from “home” to a remote land has been primarily dictated by situations that persuade one to de-anchor roots and sail away in search or prosperity.
Even in Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece Aparajito [Unvanquished], young Apu sets his feet in Calcutta, in search of a bigger world the city may offer in lieu of the rural existence in his village.
Migrations can often be unfortunate. My father holds director Ritwik Ghatak closest to his heart for the latter’s unrelenting barrage of emotional narratives based on Bengal’s partition of 1947. “The partition was of Bengal and Punjab, not of India as a whole”, my father claims even today. His ancestral homes in Sylhet and Dhaka were abandoned one fine morning when the powers that were, decided to cut the land into pieces and scatter it over the corpse of a wounded Bengali psyche. I am moved even now, when the opening shots of Ghatak’s sublime Komal Gandhar, show a theatre-within-the-film where an old man asks himself, “Why should I leave my beautiful home by the river Padma?” He goes on and clarifies that to leave home is to leave his mother, whose soul is buried there in erstwhile East Bengal, now Bangladesh. Another character answers his rhetoric – “For food”- he must become a refugee to survive, like millions of Bengalis in 1947.
The life of a migrant in an unfamiliar city is depicted with sensitivity in Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s Bengali story Kabuliwala which was made into a beautiful film by Tapan Sinha. Rahmat, the Afghan protagonist Kabuliwala, remains in the margins right through, because of the cultural, religious and physical differences. In another classic film Do Bigha Zameen [Two acres of land] by director Bimal Roy, a debt-ridden peasant, Sambhu, migrates to Calcutta from his village with a hope to be freed from the clutches of heartless landlords. However, it ends with the dream going up in smoke.
In most of such films on migration from across the globe, the underlying canvas is that of a search; a search for a migratory identity. The image of people drifting in the metropolis is so vividly explored that it touches universal chords. People have to deal with dispossession and struggle for a true meaning of his/her identity. Is this identity linked with the patch of land on which one is born or is it with the family album which one identifies as his own? These questions remain, haunt and resonate strongly. Not for anything else but because man is essentially a migratory animal.
[ Published in International Gallerie Vol 19 No. 1, 2016 (Migration theme) ]