Safina Uberoi

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Can an Australian ever become Indian? Filmmaker Safina Uberoi explores this very question in her thought-provoking documentary film, My Mother India, about her mother, Patricia Uberoi, who left Canberra, Australia in 1966 to live with her Sikh husband in New Delhi, India. The film is not only an extraordinary documentary about living in a different culture but also, via its explorations of the civil violence that rocked New Delhi in 1984, a sensitive examination into the way a nation’s political and historical turmoil impacts upon the lives of ordinary individuals. The film weaves together first-person interviews, historic footage and present-day shots of India in an effective, poetic manner.

The intimate, poignant quality of My Mother India derives from the fact that it is also a tale of Safina’s own journey and quest for identity. Not only does it reacquaint her with the sacrifice and suffering her parents and Indian grandparents endured but ultimately it is a homage to her mother and the tough decision she made a generation ago that now allows Safina to move freely between two radically different countries and cultures: Australia and India. So My Mother India is a ‘double-migration’ story in the best sense.

Stories of emigration are an integral part of Australia’s post-World War II, nation-building history. In contrast to those migrant bio-pics which feature Australia as destination, My Mother India shows the act of leaving Australia as well as moving between two countries, an experience which at times challenges the comfort zones of Australian and Indian audiences alike. Through this perspective, the film reflects insightfully on the process of simultaneously belonging to, and being outside of, two cultures.

My Mother India is an ‘Accord Documentary’ funded by the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) and the Film Finance Corporation (FFC). To date, amongst other nominations and awards, the film has won Jury Prize for Best Australian Documentary from the Australian Film Critics’ Circle; Best Australian Documentary from the Real Life on Film Documentary Festival; Special Jury Award at the Hawaii International Film Festival; Best Video Production at the Melbourne International Film Festival 2001 and Heidtman Award for Best Script. The film will have a theatrical release in August.

Safina Uberoi studied filmmaking initially in New Delhi and later at the Australian Film Television and Radio School. Her films include the award winning short Guru (1994) and several documentaries including Faith (2000) and The Brides of Khan (2001) for SBS. She has extensive experience in the theatre as an actor and director and has also been active in promoting Indian cinema to Australian audiences. My Mother India is her most recent film.

– CS & FV

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CS: The humorous opening image of the film — a shot of your mother’s undies on the balcony washing line with your voice-over explaining your childhood embarrassment — powerfully conveys her sense of difference in India. What inspired you to use that image?

SU: I had to go back and think of my mother as a foreigner, an Australian woman bringing up her children in India. The worst symbol of her oddness, and the part to which she held on, was her panties. When I first showed the film to my mum and she saw the panty story she was embarrassed and I had to say, ‘You know, I have four panty stories to choose from!’

I also thought that it was something which other Indian mothers would never do. For them, panties are their underneath. It’s their most private place, the underneath, the inside. That’s where I wanted the film to go — the inside of public experiences. For instance, I didn’t want to describe the fact that when she was looking for work people had trouble employing her. I wanted to get to the real essence of what it felt like to become part of a new culture, what she needed to keep that was Australian and what that felt like for her children who were being brought up in India.

I remember another wretched childhood panty story. We used to make a Ravana, which is an Indian effigy — he’s the big bad guy in mythology — then burn it on Dushera. (2) All the kids in the compound would get together and build this thing…

CS: Is this a Sikh custom?

SU: No, no it is a Hindu one, but it’s sort of transcultural…

CS: …and Christians did it as well?

SU: Yes everybody did it. We had Christians and Muslims in the compound and we all did it together. We’d been working on this Ravana for 10 days. All the mothers and fathers had gathered outside to look at it. As the Ravana went under our washing line it collected my mother’s undies on its crown! So here is this traditional Indian monster being carried out by these kids, crowned by my mother’s underwear! I was carrying it so I couldn’t see the panties hanging off its head. All I could see was this strange look on the parents’ faces. As we started unloading it my mother came running out of the house hooting with laughter, grabbed the panties and went ‘whup, whup, whup’ with them in the air and went back inside because she reckoned there was no point hiding it. Everyone had seen the panties so she just did a cowgirl-panty act. It made me think that in Australia everyone must be cool about panties.

CS: What has your family’s reception to the film been, given that it is such a personal story?

SU: I think there were two stages of reception. The first was when I announced that I wanted to make the film, and the second was actually filming my family. The first was a very hard stage of negotiation because they’re terribly intelligent and they also have very strong views on what films should be about. My father always used to say that if you were being a sociologist, if you were a person of ethnicity working outside your ethnic area (so you were like me you know, part Indian in Australia) you were forced to sell your grandmother. There was this expectation that your primary mode of expression would be to tell stories about your past experience. While this was valuable in helping people to understand where people of different ethnicities come from, it doesn’t allow you to comment on where you are now. He said that to me when I left India 7 – 8 years ago, but even now it’s an important point. There are advantages in authoring films about your own culture and therefore making sure that it’s interpreted in an authentic way. At the same time if we don’t turn the telescope around in the society we live in now, that society will never gain our perspective.

Safina Uberoi's father Jit at his prayers in My Mother India

I had to negotiate particularly with my father and mother and convince them I was going to make something which was genuinely thoughtful and not just exoticising another culture or cultural mix. I had to convince them of that otherwise they wouldn’t have participated. Ultimately, the film is a tribute to my mother, but it’s also her gift to me. She’s a very private person and she did this for me because she felt I needed to understand something about myself and the world. But she said things in the filming which she had never said before to me.

CS: You learnt things that perhaps you wouldn’t have, had you not made the film?

SU: There were things that she had always felt but had never said in that way. I think it made me rethink and rework a lot of things and also realize that some things, which happened a long time ago, never really leave you. They’re still with you so you have to find some way of working them out.

CS: Is this an ethical documentary?

SU: Storytelling and art are never ethical. But I decided to be ethical in the sense that I felt I would not ask my mother to sign her release form (which would have allowed us to use all the material) until she saw the film.

As we cut the film I realized I couldn’t be precious about what anyone felt. I just had to tell the story I had to tell. So when my mother arrived in Australia for a visit I showed her and my sister the film. My mother invited a few friends, whom she hadn’t seen for 20 years. So there were 3 – 4 girlfriends who attended university together and my mum and my sister. They were all watching this film together on my rotten television and she started off by laughing, as everyone does. Then I realized halfway through that the whole room was sniffing. My mother was crying, my sister was crying and I thought, ‘I’ll never get that bloody release form signed!’ So the artist half of me is going, ‘It moved them to tears’ and the practical side of me is going, ‘Oh fuck, she’ll never sign her release form and I have no money to make any changes’. Being an academic herself who uses people’s stories to tell a larger story, she understood the sacrifice she had to make. I still had to get my father to look at it, but, cleverly, I had got his signature already!

CS: Was there anything you felt you would have liked to put in the final version which you left on the cutting room floor?

SU: I think we told the story I wanted to tell. There’s a whole other story about my Australian grandmother, but that’s not the focus of this film. A lot of the things on the cutting floor are my father’s story, a story I would like to tell one day.

CS: The film was evidently made for an Australian audience, but at the same time it was so multi-layered and multi-dimensional which made me think it would also resonate well with an Indian audience. What kind of reception has the film had in India?

SU: It has been shown at the annual Mumbai Short Film Festival where it had, apparently, an incredible response. Apart from being packed out there was a demand for an additional screening. For me it has always been really important to see how Indian audiences react to the film.

A lot of the historical contextualisation was included so that Australian audiences could access the other material. At the same time, what that history refers to is so potent in the Indian mind that the film will have other resonances for Indian audiences, which it won’t have for Australian audiences. For example, there is a montage of my father going to different religious places. To an Australian audience they are just religious places but for an Indian audience they will read as I cut between one religious place and another. They will know that I am talking about Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Isai and that I’m making a comment about a range of religious places becoming rigid in their definition of themselves.

I thought it would be much more controversial and I thought many more people would feel that, after all, it was only a small story. It’s partly a story of a riot but nobody in the story dies. But the response has been amazing. I’ve had so many letters from both Australians and Indians. People have come up to me afterwards crying and talking about someone whom they lost or people who were not there during the riots and feel guilty for having been safe. My only clue to how an Indian audience might react is through the response from Indian audiences in Sydney, which have swept me away.

CS: In what sense did you think it would be controversial?

SU: It is confronting for an Australian audience to think what it’s like for an Australian woman to be in a minority. Here, you are saying, ‘Ok you are the other. Now come with me and see what it feels like’. It also confronts Indians with the idea of foreignness. For Indians it’s also a double-edged sword. Foreign rule is something Indians feel proud of having overthrown in 1947 but they are also aware that Westernisation has remained a complex and complicated process in India.

There is a current political parallel to my mother’s story in Sonja Gandhi, the widow of Rajiv Gandhi. She’s leader of the Congress Party, the second largest party, and she begs the question, ‘Can you become Indian?’ This debate has political currency in India because there is a section of society arguing that because she was born somewhere else, she can never become Indian.

The other thing of course is the riots and sectarian violence. The film is not so much anti the 1984 riots but puts a personal face to the product of any civil violence. That is what happens when violence is not orchestrated by the state. Somehow it’s a product of the way you all look at each other. Civil war is a particularly destructive thing. I was weeping over an email the other day from someone in Gujurat. In 1984 the people rioting had lists of who people were. Now the civil violence in Gujurat is organised. They have lists and are trucked-in wearing khaki uniforms with a saffron band. In that sense it’s very like the fascists. What’s more frightening is that it’s a popular movement in parts of India.

CS: It’s not something imposed from the outside but comes from within?

SU: You have to look at what your society is. I think that’s been a shortcoming of a lot of socialist filmmaking, to say that politicians are the bad guys who manipulate the good and innocent masses. That doesn’t take into account the complexity of the business of hatred. I wanted to show the personal side of the impact of hatred, and what it’s like to be a person who experiences hate. What Zoe says in the film is insightful. Her friend claimed she couldn’t see that there was anything wrong with killing people who had done nothing wrong. Her friend said, ‘I don’t mean you personally‘ and Zoe replied, ‘But of course you do. You mean me, and everybody else like me.’ And that childhood experience brings tears to her eyes 15 years later when she’s a grown up person. That is the power of hatred.

Mother India (Mehboob Khan, 1957)

CS: The title of your film reminded me of the classic 1957 film, Mother India (Mehboob Khan) which centered on the archetypal, self-sacrificing maternal figure who symbolized an independent, post-partition India. To what extent, beyond the title, was your film playing with this notion of an authentic Indian identity given that your mother is originally Anglo-Celtic Australian origin?

SU: There is a huge diaspora of Indians overseas from all walks of life. Mother India defines an authentic idea of an older India, but if you look at films now, they often have NRIs (non-resident Indians) who fall in love overseas but have to come back to get married and rediscover their Indian-ness. One negotiates with the other about who is authentically Indian and that narrative is repeated again and again. Some of the recent examples are hits like Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (Aditya Chopra, 1995). So it was very deliberate that when people came to see a film called, My Mother India, expecting a B&W Nargis sacrificing her son for India, the mother country, the first thing they see is a pair of panties on the washing line belonging to a white woman struggling to come to an understanding with ‘Mother India’.

When we were thinking about the poster for the film, one idea was a map of India with a pin-up calendar girl from the ’60s — her white sari clinging to her wet breasts. Not exactly the ‘Mother India’ archetype, but a play on that.

CS: Was the fact your mother collected calendars the inspiration for using them in your film?

SU: Oh yes. And that’s another reason why the ‘Mother India’ theme was very current in my mind because she was looking at the representation of women and nation coming through in popular imagery. In fact, in some of the calendars used, you can actually see a ‘Mother India’ figure in the foreground and a map behind.

CS: The film is very tightly structured. Can you talk me through the process of weaving together the very different, and potentially disparate, elements of the narrative?

SU: The whole film was storyboarded. We did the interviews separately then cut them when we knew what the story was going to be about. The remaining images were shot on film with an incredible ratio of 1:3.

CS: How long was the process?

Safina Uberoi with her Indian grandmother Biji in My Mother India

SU: Five years. We wrote a draft of the idea and took it to Film Australia. They helped develop the idea, but did not like the script so passed up on it. Then we went to SBS and the FFC. They liked it, but at that time it was a film dealing with issues of identity and difference through my two grandmothers, one Indian and one Australian. In that first two-year period, one of my grandmothers fell quite ill and we couldn’t make that film anymore so I had to think of a film which still dealt with the same issues of identity and culture but in some other way. So I looked at the story of my mother and re-wrote the film again. Then we re-wrote it before we shot it because we wanted to be really focused about what we did. We came back and cut together the parts of the interviews we felt were the best part of the story. We then went back to India and shot the images we thought would reflect the key themes which had emerged from the interviews. I then wrote another script. That became our game plan for another cut of the film.

It went through lots of rewriting, drafts and the kind of time you give a book and I think that was really great for us. I now feel that that’s the way to make films. I think when you have strong collaborators it makes all the difference. I had very strong collaboration with the producer, Penny McDonald, who produced Night Cries: a Rural Tragedy (Tracey Moffatt, 1991), and the Sand to Celluloid series. She has had a long history of working with interesting projects and was part of the writing process really early on.

CS: So she took on more than just a producing role?

SU: She was reading the scripts and talking it through. The other person was Himman Dhamija, the cinematographer. We did the storyboarding together, and had a very close relationship during the filming. And the editor, Reva, was remarkable at cutting to the chase. Reva would come in and I’d have written a piece of narration and she’d go, ‘But that’s not true’ and I’d have to go back to the drawing board. I think part of the honesty comes from having worked with collaborators who are extremely tough.

CS: What did Reva mean by ‘that’s not true’?

SU: It’s very easy to tell a fun story which disguised my feelings about the most painful moment in my life. That’s why people don’t want to be artists because you don’t want to go back and think about that. It was difficult for my brother and sister to give one interview in which they talked about that moment. I had to work through those interviews day after day, then try and express the experience in a way which wasn’t hiding my own weaknesses. If you hide your own weakness no one is interested. Putting things intellectually is a defense, putting things aesthetically and beautifully is a defense and to break those down you have to have very strong partners. They can’t suffer for you, but they can come with you on that journey.

CS: Which funding bodies were finally involved and what was the budget?

SU: SBS and the Film Finance Corporation, in what’s called the Accord Documentaries. They generally have a budget of about a quarter of a million and that’s public knowledge.

CS: It’s really vital in the documentary to have your voice telling us the story from your perspective. But given the limitations of voice-over at times, did you ever wonder about not using it?

SU: Well I hate voiceover, but it’s a traditional kind of dislike because I don’t like to be told what to think. But I felt there was no other way of telling you what I think is the story. I didn’t want to say, ‘This is everybody’s story’ or that, ‘This is the story of the migrant, this is the story of identity and culture. This is the story of civil violence’. I just wanted to say, ‘This is my story’.

CS: I first saw the film on the big screen at the Chauvel (Sydney), at the Women On Women Film Festival. Then I saw it on video with friends a couple of months later. I thought the film worked particularly well on the small screen where the viewer is in a closer relationship with the subjects.

SU: We always knew we had a TV release. Himman has a remarkable ability to go in really close before the interviewee says something incredibly important. He doesn’t shoot the whole interview like that. So I wonder if part of that is experiencing the film as if you’re holding the camera because the questions and the answers are coming from such a personal one-on-one space. The characters in the piece are not talking to a big audience. They are talking to one person behind the camera — me.

CS: One of your healing experiences after the horror of the 1984 riots was working in the refugee camps. You mentioned you felt guilty because you’d survived, and your brother however was whisked away to boarding school in Australia. He now has quite a different relationship to India. Can you elaborate on that?

SU: Primo Levi, who has written about the experience of surviving Auschwitz tells this story about how, after the camps were liberated, people were put on guard all over again. The Americans had to get soldiers to guard people in the camps because there was mass suicide. They’d spent all these years struggling to get that extra crumb of bread to be the ones to survive, but when you do survive, and realize who has not, you feel incredibly guilty.

One of my jobs was, because some people were illiterate, to write down their stories so that all the evidence could go to a commission. Because I could write and speak three languages, I acted as an interpreter writing down these stories which were incredibly confronting. I was only 16 years old. I remember these stories from women who’d survived but wished they had died when they were raped.

We ran a camp for a year afterwards for children from the area and there was this little 5-year-old child who’d always draw with a yellow crayon and she had scars on her hand. I eventually found out that she had held her father’s hand as he burnt to death with a tyre around his neck. For me, the day when she started using other colours was the day when I felt this child could grow up. So to hear those stories you think, I’m so lucky it’s disgusting. I don’t deserve to be the one whose father was not attacked. I don’t deserve to be the one whose house was not burnt to the ground. But when you see that people can pull their lives together over a year, it’s an amazing display of the strength of the human spirit. It’s not that that child had a happy ending, but that she could still grow up.

I think there is a difference between someone who leaves at that moment of crisis and someone who stays. The person who leaves doesn’t learn that you can live through crisis. So, for my brother the crisis is never resolved.

CS: You could have gone to Australia at that time, like your brother, if you’d wanted to?

SU: I suppose it was more that I could have done that later as well. India has continued to have periods of crisis where you have to choose between the business of engagement and the business of leaving. I want to spend a lot of time in India and show my film in lots of places, particularly in the areas affected by the riots. I want to see what people think. Maybe people won’t like it, and maybe they will, but I still want to know.

CS: How long did it take most people to leave the camps and rebuild their lives?

SU: Lots of the camps disbanded within a month, some within two months. But there was a lot of carry-over work as well. The camp for the children ran for a whole year. By that stage they’d moved back home but the kids still came to this place because they just couldn’t go back to school. They were devastated, so helping them through that trauma was important. They went back to live in the very places from which people had come to kill them or had watched as their family members were killed. Those areas were so volatile that there was a lot of work to be done for a long period of time, and in fact you know it goes on. In that sense the Sikh community has a long history of looking after its own.

CS: You once described this documentary to me as ‘a good news migration tale’.

SU: I’m sick of migration being represented as a problem from both sides of the fence. When people are describing themselves we encourage migration to be described as a problem and migrants as victims. Whereas another way of looking at it is that migrants are the pioneers of another kind of engagement and what they do, what happens when you migrate, is very painful but it is also very valuable and it’s an act of doing not just a done deal. Even when it’s exile and even when you’re a refugee it is an act of doing, because you have to learn how to live again and you have to learn how to live differently and this is a very powerful moment. If you look at many cultures, women are good at it.

CS: Women often seem to be good at keeping original cultural links alive while adapting to a new country.

SU: Women seem to be better at keeping who they are, while also becoming something new. It’s a very powerful and creative process but it’s always complex and painful. So I think that’s why I want more good news stories. I want more stories about the strength of difficult things, or the strength which difficult processes elicit.

Thanks to Fiona Villella, Sadhana Jethanandani, Fiona Probyn and Bruce Jeffreys.

Endnotes

  1. Non-Resident Indian
  2. The festival of Dushera involves the burning of the effigy of Ravan, the mythical evil King of Lanka who was vanquished by the good king Ram in the pan-Indian epic the Ramayana.

About The Author

Catherine Simpson is a lecturer in the Media Department at Macquarie University, Sydney. She is the co-editor of Diasporas of Australian Cinema.