“She’s a very sweet kid,” observes Mrs. Wasvani. “But,” she smiles, “Destiny!” She’s talking about her maid, Lakshmi, a beautiful young woman who scrubs floors, cleans windows, and does laundry for Mrs. Wasvani four days a week, and has been doing so since Lakshmi was 10 years old. Now, she’s 21, cast off by her drunken father and rejected by her siblings, living with her boyfriend Krishna and his family in Mumbai. As Lakshmi is of a particular caste that leaves her to such labor and associations, it appears that the “destiny” Mrs. Wasvani cites is pretty well set.
One of Lakshmi’s other employers is filmmaker Nishtha Jain. In her remarkable documentary, Lakshmi and Me, airing as part of PBS’ Independent Lens this month, Jain proposes to “cross a line,” to film her employee. Lakshmi agrees (“Yes, didi,” she says, using the term of respect meaning “older sister,” “My life deserves a film”), and so Jain’s camera follows her from room to room as she mops, polishes, and straightens. At one point, Jain notes in voiceover, a camera she’s left on while she’s left the apartment is watching Lakshmi working in the bedroom. She looks at the lens, frowning, as she also contorts herself as if to escape the frame. “For a few days after this,” Jain says, “She’s a bit wary of the filming. She tells me she’s fed up of me filming her doing housework.”
At this point, Lakshmi invites Jain to film her at home. And with this, the film takes a turn, away from Jain’s apparent interest in her maid’s behavior at work — clambering beneath Jain’s desk chair to clean the floor as Jain sits in it; doing dishes while Jain instructs, “I’ve told you so often to keep the cups upside down, but you forget everything, don’t you?”; eating lunch together, Jain in a chair and Lakshmi seated on the floor. Over a low-angle two-shot, Jain notes Lakshmi’s insistence on the custom, “No matter how much I tell her not to.” Re-situating herself alongside her audience, Jain adds, “When I see this picture of us, it embarrasses me.”
This layered perspective — as both women articulate and embody their very different sorts of self-awareness — complicates Lakshmi and Me. It’s not only a record of Lakshmi’s experience, or even of Jain’s efforts to understand that experience. It’s a delicate sort of dance, employer and employee negotiating boundaries of respect and privacy, (narrative) control and access. Though Jain makes a point of inviting her subject to eat at the table with the film crew (the novelty of the moment indicated by Lakshmi’s self-conscious laughter), the differences of caste and class are never lost. While Jain describes herself as “born a feminist,” refusing at an early age to do the housework in which her own mother took pride (“I said I would do it only if my brothers did; so she ended up doing it all herself”), Lakshmi asks, “What sin did I commit to be born a woman?”
The film considers their different “destinies,” as Jain commends Lakshmi’s strength and resolve during increasingly difficult circumstances. “I realize I’ve been paying her the same salary for three years,” Jain confesses, an amount that is heartbreakingly small, though also “what everyone pays.” As much time as they spend together, they plainly live in separate worlds. When she goes away for a fortnight, in part to raise funds for the film she’s making, Jain returns to Mumbai to discover that her subject has disappeared. As she begins to clean her own house — her face close in a wide shot as she scrubs — Jain says, “Strangely, I feel free, almost relieved that she’s not here. I don’t have to deal with her problems.” Those problems are expanded in the next moments, when Jain learns Lakshmi is pregnant, newly married to Krishna… and has tuberculosis.
Jain pauses here to consider her own self-portrait at 21, Lakshmi’s age now. “My carefully composed half face,” she says, as her current self hovers above the photo, reflected in glass. “With my Led Zeppelin tape and my favorite white earrings. Being a woman was fun, but it was absolutely the wrong time to get pregnant. Thankfully, abortion was not a sin.” Though Jain doesn’t linger on her own story, the comparison to Lakshmi’s is upfront: the younger woman refuses to consider abortion. Even if she must raise the baby herself, she says, she means to have it. “I admired Lakshmi’s courage,” Jain says, as she films her at home with Krishna and his family. The fact that he’s from a lower caste than hers has led to consternation within her own family: her older sister won’t speak to her, though she describes for Jain’s camera her regret. “I’ve done so much for my family,” Lakshmi laments, “But they don’t care about me.”
Jain’s film never pretends to be objective or to have no effects on Lakshmi’s life. As Lakshmi and a sister who does speak to her watch rushes on a monitor, they laugh and point, even as Jain worries how they might respond to “seeing some of the more personal stuff.” The image — Lakshmi watching herself as Jain watches her watching what she’s filmed — seems an apt summary of the complicated interactions here, unresolved, unexpected, and rendered in a series of beautiful compositions, simultaneously lyrical, literal, and haunting. During a health crisis, Jain and Krishna spend a day seeking a hospital that will take Lakshmi in, finally getting her a bed and treatment. “I’m not sure whether I’m here as an employer, a friend or a filmmaker,” Jain says as her camera observes Lakshmi at a distance, looking thin and exhausted. “The lines have blurred. I’m glad I’m here.” But the lines in Lakshmi and Me are never not blurred. The film’s ambiguities make all parties — subject, maker, and viewer — responsible for its effects.