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Men at work: film review

This guest post by IPSITA SENGUPTA is the second of a four-part series reviewing the films that form LTM 2.0

The Manly Men- a take on Men at Work

“Men at Work” is a documentary by Kesang Tseten, set in Nepal. From four different angles, the film takes a glimpse at ways in which young men are trained to be in the world out there.  It explores how socialisation of various types tend to steer them toward performing primarily as men.

Sometimes the training is done officially, as in the last two cases captured. Sometimes one’s profession demands one to do things regarded “manly” since time immemorial. Like working with grease and paint (to the point of applying machine oil on itchy skin), and getting drenched in sweat and dirt, as the characters did in segment-2, Lamaji’s Garage.

Sometimes what one observes becomes an ideal. In The Boy from My Window (segment-1), we see through a frame a young boy. The frame encases little chubby legs and the boy’s back, as he carries out domestic chores- sweeping, washing, watering plants. A jump cut as the boy hangs a sari out to dry- probably the monotony of it.

Everyday he is also witness to an alternate reality. The neighbourhood boys wear trainers and do warm up and stretching exercises, in preparation for a karate session, a game of football, etc. Our protagonist watches awestruck, holding his broom loosely behind him. And slowly starts imitating the individuals he sees, a happy wonder in his eyes. He finds himself a cap and wields the broom around like a player. As he scrubs shoes for an older man, he slips his little feet into them and admires the sight. He dreams of himself in a world that’s difficult for him to belong to at that moment in his life.

One of the basic requirements of the ideal masculine being anywhere around the world, is strength. Strength to be in control. Control over circumstances begins with control over oneself. Therefore the mission of the young boys in Becoming Priests (segment-3) to achieve spiritual strength, a step toward becoming a more complete individual. Here the task is to trade appearances for an inner calling toward sacrifice and spiritual knowledge. Thus we see an apprentice using a pink Disney towel as loincloth without giving it a thought- something most boys would have been worried sick about, especially with modern ideas of colours corresponding with gender identities. Homesickness is the weakness to be countered- a matter of mind over body. There is also training in diction and voice-throw: their show of power lies in things they say, and ways they chant toward “higher powers”.

Physical strength re-appears in the last segment, Becoming Gurkha. This time as more than just fitness training. The applicants to the army need to be “brave”, “honest”, with a sense of “confidence” and “discipline”, as we glean from the various interviews. To be “relaxed” in posture and vague in spirit is dangerous, because split second decisions have to be made in life-threatening situations. Alertness and knowledge of one’s surroundings is essential. To miss the love of one’s parents is a supposedly a sign of weakness- emotional constraint is important.

The men under training are following in the footsteps of generations of (male) soldiers that their families have seen before them. Some have gone to the extent of changing their caste to enrol in the profession regarded as one of the most masculine of all- to fight for one’s land. From the interviews, the machismo expected out of everyone seems to be lacking in some. Maybe in their heart of hearts they wanted to do something else. Art, music, farming, embroidery. Maybe their aptitude lies in  carrying out household tasks. But they are here.

The instances brought up in the film bring to mind again and again the cultural context in which these men are placed. This context is determined to some extent by the geographic location, South Asia, where traditional value systems dictate that a woman’s place is inside the house. The stove is her responsibility. But to keep the stove lit, i.e. economic security is the man’s job. A man can’t afford to be emotional- that would be too “feminine”, or as many men are made fun of- “effeminate”.

The rough, competitive world outside should be handled by the male adult, and “softer” chores- duties within the domestic sphere, lie on a woman’s shoulders. Crossing over these boundaries is frowned upon, especially if a man wants to do things considered feminine. In Lamaji’s Garage, (within the work space) the only trace of female characters is of a sportswoman in the newspaper, assumed at first by one of the workers to be a model or movie actor. In that male dominated space, characterised by machine parts, card games, cigarettes, and a chess board, she is still just an image. Or she is sitting safe away from the rain, taking care of a child. For the boy in the first story, freedom and mobility is offered through the image of sportspersons performing live in front of him. True that such emancipation would attract any child. But then, not a single girl is seen playing with the neighbourhood lads. Maybe he takes the message thus, that outdoor games are a boy thing.

The need to control often translates into violence. To maintain order in the running of the household, economic power gives men a sense of power over women, children, and those men seen as incapable of dominating over others due to their nature or physical characteristics. There is a constant striving toward the perfect male. Outlets for physical aggression and grasp over external circumstances, translate into professions hailed as manly- like military service. For priests, though physical show of might is eschewed, their exercises toward completeness of being (and thus preachers of special knowledge) are never shared by women. The ideal being is ultimately male. As simple as it was to traditionally use the word “Man” for all human beings, since it was made clear socially that women were not allowed in the space of public discourse.

Modernity, left behind by a colonial history, as well as the economic conditions of being a Third World region reinforced such division of labour, and contributed to imbalanced power relations in such societies. Thus the struggle to challenge mindsets continues in 2013, with work such as Men At Work.

 

Ipsita Sengupta is pursuing her Master’s in Film Studies at Ambedkar University, Delhi.

With you, without you: film review

This guest post by IPSITA SENGUPTA is the first of a four-part series reviewing the films that form LTM 2.0

Lost and loved- a take on Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka (With you, without you)

Can love ever be too late? Isn’t it one of those eternal things that are true when you see them, because they are so evident? Is there any such thing as love that’s not enough?

Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka, or With You Without You, is a heart-warming film by director Prasanna Vithanage, based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “A Gentle Creature”.

A young woman stares out apprehensively toward distant cloud-covered hills. There is a nostalgic note in her voice as it floats over the landscape. She fears she has been destructive, that she has not been able to love as much as she should.

A man’s voice chimes in with his own regrets. We are slowly taken back a few years in the life of a pawnbroker, Sarathsiri, who marries his client. Out of a sense of being her saviour, rescuing her out of poverty and the clutches of an old businessman she was about to be married to? We do not know. At least her initial refusal to his proposal, according to a fellow character, is due to her pride. The same pride with which she refuses to take the rosary which she brought, when he offers it back along with its cash worth. But then again, this young lady did catch his attention since the first time she is seen at the counter.

Sarathsiri takes the lead in all the decisions within their married life. Of course, he had to teach her the business of the pawn shop. But between them, from consummation of the marriage to the nature of conversations between them, to her movement outside the home, Sarathsiri initiates and governs behaviour. Her chirpiness is met with silence, and a straight face that smiles ever so rarely. He berates her when she makes her own decisions regarding his customers’ requests, and his very presence stops her in her tracks whenever she’s even a little animated.

In fact, throughout the 90 minute span of the story, silence is as much a wall around the characters as the hills are around their house. When the newlywed Selvi danced in joy around the dining table, inviting the domestic helper to dance with her, she mimed her feelings with no music around, only the solitary sound of her anklets. In the last sequence, her fall from the window ledge was as inconspicuous as someone walking from one room to another.

Sarathsiri let his past be a mystery. He made sure that he himself was a mystery. And understanding that a relationship is a give and take affair, or perhaps because he was wary of the related complications of this give-and-take, he ignored the question of his wife’s past as well.

Even within all this control, something sweet slithered in. Thus the air of regret introduced in the beginning of the film, which guides us toward what was to come. He understands in hindsight how he oppressed her being. Her dreams challenged his own. Things that were simple joys for her, like watching movies, he scoffed at as a “waste of time”. Her love made him “afraid”.

To assert an upper hand over Selvi, he used as a weapon the argument of economic support, and how she would not be able to speak this much and this way if it wasn’t for him providing for her. The centrepiece of the table is food, covered and uncovered constantly. This centrepiece of sorts is a central character to the film itself. It speaks for itself- as integral to the relationship of this provider and the one he “sheltered”.

The severity of his power games is reduced because of the realisation voiced in bits and pieces with every event shown. Life’s circumstances led both of them to be what they were, and all actions follow logically from one to the other, even if the end was tragic. But then, one cannot possibly avoid the dialectic of having and losing.

Sarathsiri worships a little statue of the Buddha on his mantelpiece everyday. We learn later that he is trying to absolve himself of a war crime. Not something he did directly, but for standing in cover for other perpetrators. We also learn, and so does Sarathsiri, that his wife is hiding some pain from her childhood, pain that is related to the same kind of war crimes he is trying to make up for. This pain is aroused at his confession, and the revelation that he belonged, once upon a time, to the enemy camp, which had harmed her family for no fault of theirs.

The psychological pain takes a toll on her physical being. While skeletons come out of the closet for both of them, S understands more and more the individual that Selvi is. “I only saw what I wanted to see from you”, he says when all is over. He tries to make up for his emotional absence and mental distances, showering love on her, promising fulfilment of her desires like movies and travel to India, that she had managed to convey to him between his coldness. But by that time she feels she is causing him inconvenience even expecting the least bit of attention. So her assertion also, “I was afraid of your love”.

As important as the dining table is the window in Sarathsiri’s house, prominent from among the first shots. Sarathsiri is shown meditating there after she is no more, the way he would divert all his attention to his TV set those days before he shared his home with his wife, and also when he did not want her getting close to him. For Selvi this was the window to the world beyond the boundaries Sarathsiri kept her in, and ultimately was the “opening” to an alternative reality- death.

As the protagonist says in A Gentle Creature, “I worried her to death”. Well adapted into a glaring ethno-political situation in Sri Lanka, Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka takes us through the journey of a man, and the pride that he used to disguise past anguish. How one situation of regret led him to another because he refused to let go, to admit his guilt and face his fears head-on. It may be assumed that Selvi represented the peace he was yearning for, and in his desperation to achieve the golden eggs he lost the goose.

Could there have been any other way? Was it necessary for her to “turn back and smile”, like Sarathsiri hopelessly reflects? Would that have made it easier for him? But then, can we blame him for not taking agency of his own freedom from past actions?

 

Ipsita Sengupta is pursuing her Master’s in Film Studies at Ambedkar University, Delhi.

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