What comes to your mind when you think of Mirabai (or Meerabai, depending on your choice of spelling)?
The 16th century princess-turned-poet from Rajasthan who was a devotee of Krishna? The rebellious Rajput princess who refused to worship any other god, but Krishna? The widow who was harassed by her in-laws because she refused to become a sati? The pious saint whose soulful compositions we hear now and then through the renditions of Lata Mangeshkar, Kishori Amonkar, M.S. Subbalakshmi, and others? An incident from Mirabai’s life in a school text-book? The Amar Chitra Katha comic book that narrates her entire “life story”?
I am thinking about all this as I wait for a documentary on Mirabai to begin at the RR Theatre of Films Division (FD) at Peddar Road in Mumbai. An initiative of The FD Zone, this screening is part of a curated two-film package: the first is the film on Mirabai titled A Few Things I Know About Her and the second film is Narayan Gangaram Surve.
In the darkened screening room, the audience chuckles as the 12-year-old Lior Liebling delivers the last line with a naughty smile and a twinkle in his eye. Lior, which means “my light” in Hebrew, is the protagonist of an award-winning film by Illana Trachman, Praying with Lior. This documentary film is about Lior, a special child, a child with Down’s Syndrome, and a child who loves davening (traditional Jewish prayer) and singing, and who every one thinks has a special relationship with God. His faith and belief in Hashem (Hebrew for God) is simple: when asked if God has a smell, a taste or a form, Lior says, “No, no, no. God is God.”
Two little girls, sisters, are seated side by side and are prompted by their dad to sing “Happy Birthday” for him, while he films them for a home movie. The sisters happily oblige. The scene changes and we see footage of the two sisters and their parents at picnics, other birthdays, on a ship (the father is in the merchant navy), etc. Watching the scenes unfold, one after the other, the viewer is led to think that these are glimpses from the life of a happy family.
This perception changes when the conversations begin—telephone conversations recorded in 2006, which are played out against the backdrop of the 20-year old footage of “happy” family memories. These are telephone conversations between the sisters, Santana and Simran; between the mother and Santana; and between Santana and the father. These conversations reveal something totally contrary to what the images convey—that this is not a happy family unit. The parents have separated and the mother does not speak to the father, and Simran also does not speak to her father and wants to have nothing to do with him. Only Santana talks to her father. Sometimes. The reason for all this is the father’s alcoholism.
As curator, Pankaj divided these 9 films into 4 sections: (i) Home movies as genesis of explorations (Straight 8, The Dust, These Old Frames, and Grandad with a Movie Camera; (ii) Politics of home movies (Khoob Asti Afghanistan and I for India); (iii) “Happy” home movies and strange truths (Bare and Tarnation); and (iv) Conclusion: the way ahead (Phantom Limb). The films were screened in this order and the complexity of the use of family footage in the larger narrative of the documentary film increased as we progressed from film to film, and section to section to experience a range of amazingly simple to multi-layered, complex films. Bare was the 7th film to be screened that day, and the disturbing contrast and disjunct between the visual moving image and the audio track has ensured that this film has imprinted itself on my mind. That is the reason why I began my post with that film.
Every Indian child, at least the ones who learn Hindi, knows about Kabir—the mystic poet, saint, and philosopher. Kabir ke dohe or Kabir’s couplets were a part of my school life too. Not only did I read his poetry in my Hindi textbooks, I was also exposed to his philosophy through the Government of India initiated “National Integration Campaign” during my school years in the eighties as Kabir’s philosophy and background—which appealed to Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs alike—made him the perfect symbol of national integration.
Kahat Kabir suno bhai saadho…, which appears like a signature line in most of Kabir’s compositions,was probably the most recognised phrase during my school days. Yet, once I left school, I also left Kabir behind. Over the years, I had fleeting encounters with Kabir through a occassional article in a newspaper or magazine or through snatches of a song heard on TV or the radio.
So, when I heard about the Kabir Festival being organised in Mumbai, I knew that this was a chance to renew my acquaintance with Kabir. According to the Festival’s twitter page, “The aim of The Kabir Festival Mumbai is to introduce Mumbai to the message of Kabir which is perhaps even more relevant today than it was in his time.” The Kabir Festival Mumbai is a “confluence of mystic poetry, music, dance and films”, with the main festival being held from 21–23 January, and the run-up events from 14–20 January 2011.