Admirable and moving, "I am Alive" by Sudhir Mishra is excellently served by inspired actors (Deepti Naval leading the crew), filmed with tact and reserve, and filled with emotion and realism. It tells the story of Beena, a young woman married to an unwilling husband who deserts the house and leaves her to her own resources, thus forcing her to bear the responsibilities that he could not shoulder. This entails supporting a household of 5 people, and Beena has to go to town to look for work while the others wait for her to do everything. It is a sober comment on men's weakness and womanly strength. But this strength is simply not recognised, rather is exploited to sustain a profoundly unjust social system. The film is a very subtle depiction of the hardships of women in contemporary India. And highly entertaining in spite of the serious subject.
(This abstract has been posted on Jaman.com, but I'm not sure you can still read it, as the website has undergone a big change some years ago)
In the street where Beena has settled, a whole community observes her every move. Everyone watches everyone, and anyway there are so many people that it’s impossible to have a private life. Among the members of the community, two elderly men observe Beena with a seemingly different point of view: one of them, who is blind, is dictating to the other a novel about Beena. He has great hopes that she will do great things. He glamorises her, transforms her into a Bollywood heroine: “In this way, her odyssey began… Uncaring of blistered feet, from this office to that…” The scribe marvels at his imagination, but the author warns him: the language of life and that of fiction are things apart. What we have here is a modern version of a Greek chorus, where wise (or sometimes foolish) people comment the action, and underline its fictionality. But we understand Sudhir Mishra’s point: Indian men cannot see reality in the face: they fictionalise women, they can only accept them as slaves or heroines, not as equals and they cannot refrain from thinking themselves superior to them. And of course the criticism of Bollywood is clear: an industry which confines women to the roles of demi-goddesses, all the better to avoid reform of real life situations, where they are made to be used to serve male interests.
The two roads:
At the beginning of the movie, Beena’s father explains to his daughter that there are two roads in life; the first one, he says, is the wordly road, where it is easy to have friends and success, but in the end it leaves one empty and has achieved nothing. The other road is a hard one, with no fellow-travellers, without shelter or solace, but it is the only one towards one’s true self. Obviously, Beena’s road in the film has been the second one. She has had to fight in the scorching sun of scandal and suffering in order to meet some sort of freedom (the last picture, with her strange reunification with Ravi, her chosen partner). Ironically, though, there is no easy road for her. Either she conforms to the role society has laid out for her, that of a dupe and of a slave, or she rebels and runs the risk of being rejected from society altogether. Sudhir Mishra, in a move that reminds me of the little light of hope he had lit at the end of Dharavi, makes her choose the second route, that of self-fulfilment, and proposes that it is possible for such women to live in peace in spite of everything.
I have been struck by this actress, whose style reminds me of Shabana Azmi. If you have seen the film, or after you have, and if you are also interested in her personality, I cannot recommend enough her website. In it I have discovered an actress who is also a poet, a photographer, a painter, a thinker and an activist. One article tries to sum the tone of her artistic production: “her work is representative of modern existential conflicts, joys and sorrows, of wearing and tearing different masks for survival.” She emerges as a remarkable person and citizen, one that her country can be proud of. In Main zinda hoon, you can sense this intense personality: her role-playing is a fascinating composition; she is utterly real, utterly convincing. And strangely, the relation which Deepti Naval seems to have with her own father
(as described in the website here) is not unlike the special relationship which the character of Beena enjoys with her father. This vision, voice or memory (difficult to know exactly which) that comes to her in difficult moments is Beena’s only guide on that difficult road.
If someone knows of another film with her where she’s as compelling, I’d be pleased to know. (I realise I’m not being very kind to the other actors here, since I hardly mention them. But they’re all very good)
The value of Life:
The film is called: “I am alive”. At one crucial moment, Beena tries to commit suicide, and puts her neck on a railway, at night. But she can’t get herself to do it. Her father appears, and suggests that sooner or later anyway, she’ll taste death: why doesn’t she experience life until then?
This alternative might seem cynical: in fact it’s what saves her. She understands that even if she is disgusted by everything, that life has a value and that she will fight, and continue on that road of self-revelation. “Nothing can be gained from death”, teaches her father. It seems banal to say that only life has the power to change things. Obviously, death is never a solution. It precludes any solution. Life can be unbearable, but it is still life, with movement, change, future. In times of absurdity, of meaningless suffering, a stubborn conviction that life has the power to bring something else, that the dark tunnel can actually open at some place, and despite all the odds, on some shaft of light : this is what “I am alive” means. We are not in a Christian context here, where life is believed to contain some consolation after death. But I think that even Christians can heed this film’s message: courage is after all a prominent Christian virtue.
Life as such is a fundamental value, in any religion or civilisation. And my impression is that sometimes we have forgotten that. We let ourselves too often become the victims of melancholia, or nihilism, and life as a value is forgotten. We hear teenagers question their answerless parents: “why have you brought me here to live this painful life?” And our contemporaries often believe it is better not to live if one cannot benefit from all of life’s advantages: how many “imperfect” babies or ageing parents are gotten rid of, or forgotten, because their parents suppose their suffering lives would have been unbearable? In the face of these examples of despair and lack of courage, Main zinda hoon stresses the opposite: life is good, in itself, it contains in itself unknown possibilities of fulfilment and creativity, and only people live. That means suffering, and unhappiness of course. But we in the West (and perhaps this is not restricted to the West) have been used to too much comfort, too much happiness to tolerate life in its harsher forms. But down that road the risk is that we will not have enough strength to vindicate life when we need it most.