Cinematic Ties: Rachel Dwyer
One of the relationships that most perplexes me in India is the one between people and their servants. Not so much those people who come in to perform work in someone’s home and then leave but rather the live-in servants.
They have their own sleeping quarters — it is rare to see servants asleep outside flats in Mumbai today — and they are mostly out of sight unless performing their work, moving silently around the house when needed. They are ‘gender neutralised’ — so the idea of a woman travelling around in a car at night with a man is entirely different if he is a servant. The differences of class, and perhaps caste, make the chasm unbridgeable. In Chupke Chupke (1975), when Sulekha (Sharmila Tagore) seems to be over-friendly with the shuddh Hindi-speaking ‘driver’, actually her husband Professor Tripathi (Dharmendra), she asks, ‘Driver insaan nahin hota?’ (Is a driver not a human being?)
The ideal relationship seems to be one where the servant is part of the family although within limits. The servant can be a companion like Dharamdas in the film adaptations of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Devdas or Alka in Dear Zindagi (2016). The servant — perhaps someone in disguise — sorts out domestic disputes in Bawarchi (1972) or Hero No. 1 (1997). The stock figure of Ramu Chacha is so normalised that even an elephant called Ramu can play a loyal servant, taking the bullet in Haathi Mere Saathi (1971).
Yet admitting an unknown person into the house can be dangerous, as in Talvar (2015). The unseen servant can murder you or your family and the head of the family can take the blame.
It is remarkable, given the ubiquity of the servant, how few there are in films today. Perhaps it is because the modern family does not need live-in servants as much as the joint family did. Perhaps employing servants is somehow not modern? The loyal retainers in the Barjatya films such as Maine Pyar Kiya (1989) add to the image of the traditional family.
A friend in Mumbai had a bai or maid, Sunanda bai, of whom I was very fond, although I would wake up every morning with sounds of dishes clattering around and hearing her shout at the other servants. She was a great character who danced with me at a family wedding in an upmarket venue. She was tiny and didn’t drink but packed away an enormous meal. She was part of not only the family but all of us who stayed in her employer’s house, which was very much Sunanda bai’s domain.
Rachel Dwyer is a professor of Indian cultures and cinema at SOAS, University of London. Her most recent book is Bollywood’s India: Hindi Cinema as a Guide to Modern India (published in India as Picture Abhi Baaki Hai).
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