When I was a child, one of my favourite activities was re-decorating my room and the little altar I had in celebration of Hindu festivals. I would suspend my mom’s sheer yellow dupata from the ceiling for Krishna Janmashtami and borrow the big metal Nataraj statue from our living room for Maha Shivrathri. The memory of this was what partially inspired the original intent behind my fourth short film, Holy Mother My Mother.
I wanted to explore how one festival might be celebrated in different regions of India. I chose Navaratri, the Goddess festival, because it conveniently spans nine days and because I have always been drawn to femininity. A close friend of mine suggested that I invite my mother to join me and as soon as she said this, I knew that my mother was the missing piece to the film.
We travelled to Ahmedabad to witness the hypnotic, colourful garba dancing, then to Mysore where we walked around the brilliantly lit-up grounds of Mysore Palace and the ancient Chamundi Temple, ending in Kolkata for “pandal-hopping.” I am cautious to romanticize India as a Canadian-born Indian, but I often thought about how I had never experienced such an explicit honouring of the feminine in North America and also how Western media often portrays India as solely misogynist and/or “backwards.”
In the daytime, my mother and I would have conversations about her own relationship with regards to being a mother. As I recorded her, it was fascinating to listen to how motherhood is such a strong part of her identity, how proud she is of being a mother, and yet how painful the experience is for her—it seemed to me that her greatest joy is also her greatest heartbreak.
My mother ended up being the heart of the film, not the glue, and the final piece shows clips of the festival juxtaposed with her reflections, scored by my brother Shamik, who was also there with us.
When I pitched the idea to my mother, I was surprised that she agreed so quickly, especially knowing how private she is. Her response was: I am so touched.
That said, when I launched the film earlier this spring, I asked her directly why she said yes. She responded: I didn’t realize you were going to film me so much.
I am so grateful that she was on board, not only because of the project, but sharing these experiences and this time together felt like a gift.
Filming in India:
As an independent artist with an independent budget, I didn’t acquire any of the official permits required to film in India, so filming in general was challenging. I was stopped by the police a few times and as a result, opted to shoot without a tripod in an effort to not draw attention to the fact that I was filming. This meant sacrificing the “still-image” aesthetic that I would have preferred, though I think that in the end, the shaky footage accurately captures the lively energy of the celebrations.
My favorite shot in the film is of my mother singing a bhajan on the highway in Puttaparthi. A friend noted that it fully encapsulates my mother’s steadfastness and devotion, despite the honking and chaos around her.
I have a new illustrated novel being published in the fall by Arsenal Pulp Press, entitled She of the Mountains, that weaves a contemporary queer love story with re-imagined Hindu mythology. I can’t wait to share it with Gaysi readers!