Leather, Sex and Masala

By Vinita Srivastava

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By March 1992 Masala was playing to full theatres in Toronto and had reached England for the first CAN-Asian film festival. I spoke with Srinivas Krishna, the film's director/writer/actor and co-producer (co-produced with Camelia Friberg) in England in March 1992 before the premiere of his film at the CAN-Asian festival. Following are some of Krishna's reflections nine months after the release of his first feature film.

I get asked often, "Why did you make this film?" On the CBC, I remember during the Festival of Festivals there was a live radio interview and the presenter asked me, "Why did you become a filmmaker and make this film?"...And I said, "What prompted you to become a journalist so that you could interview me?".. .And I just, I wonder exactly, well, why does one do the things one does?

[But] why this film is because... I was in New York, and Philidelphia [and] by that time I [had] made two short films myself and I thought, "Wonder what do they really have to do with the world that I live [in], or the ways that I see the world?"

They didn't really adhere to personal experience or history at all. I want to do something that is rooted in something that is very familiar, that is much more personal. And so I thought, "Set it in Indians." It didn't really matter if it was Toronto or New York but I thought certainly in the New World. I drew out the plot on a napkin in a cafe in Toronto. The plot was really simple. You just start with two families. When you start with Indians, you start with families. Families—it's so easy because it's what you know. There's always one guy who's outside the family, some blacksheep troublemaker, evil cousin or something like that. So you have these two families—there's one poor family and one rich family.

Krishna laughs and continues to explain his story of story of a troubled youth/rebel who lost his family five years ago to a crashed flight destined for India. He is searching for home amongst his rich uncle's (Lallu Bhai Salanki) family, and Lallu Bhai's poor cousin, Mr. Tikkoo and his family. As the interviewer, it is now that I begin to understand the clarity as well as the headiness and energy of Masala. Originally, Krishna intended to make a 'genre' picture, a "Rebel Without a Cause" a "Boy Meets Girl," but this concept soon became too limiting, first evident when Krishna decided that he wanted to put Lord Krishna in the film. And then all of Krishna's stories toppled, not finding space in the New World context of film. Krishna described having a feeling of 'apartness' that maintained itself through his stories and childhood fables which did not seem to have any currency here. And so he decided to 'unravel' the genre, saying that the world could indeed be like this, as he described it. "Why," he asked, "should I use these outside constructions to define this world that I am talking about? It is deserving of a language of its own" The result? A richly layered narrative film that defies both the conventional Hollywood, and European Arts Cinema genres. Masala is also a film that looks at stereotypes, meets sexuality, and 'humanizes gods, all of which has put this director and the film on the controversial list in Canada and in India where a film screening has yet to be accepted.

I asked Krishna if he predicted any audience reactions.

I thought surely some people would be pissed off but I didn't know the shape of what would happen. I didn't know what was really going to happen because the thing about this is that I didn't know who my audience would be. If you know who your audience is, you can predict; you can act for an audience; you're talking to someone. I really wondered sometimes, "Who am I talking to?"

If you have that genre: Hollywood, anti-Hollywood, first world discourse, then you know what you're referring to, you know who your audience is, you know the frame for it; it's all contained within a frame. I was very well aware that the film was not in that frame at all because the world of the people it describes is outside of [that frame] and this is going to have interesting effects for any audience.

People here watch European Art Cinema: stories, in other words, fashioned from one position and stories fashioned from another position—they're in it, and of it. But what happens if you' re in it but you' re not of it? Who is then the audience for it? At the time [of writing] I just didn't know, I thought, "Well, you know there are some things that Indians living outside of India will understand but will they understand other things? And then there are some things that people who are not Indian will understand but will they understand the things that Indians understand?"

Remember when Midnight's Children came out? I read that in India, and came back to the University of Toronto to hear a non-Indian student say to me, "Oh, I loved that book, it's so fantastic!" And I said, "How could you understand it? You're not Indian." A very good answer came back which was, "Well, I understand different things than you do. How do you understand what I read in it?" That was a really good answer; it made me think a lot about it.

The reason why I didn't subtitle the Hindi in the film? Hindi, first of all, isn't even my language, but the reason is when you sit on a bus and people chatter away in their own languages and you just don't know what they are saying, do you now? And so I didn'twantto translate it because I wanted to reframe that. But those who know Hindi say, "I get this, this was meant for me."

Ultimately, I couldn't predict who the entire film was meant for, but do we really live in a world where everybody gets everything?

Ultimately, I couldn't predict who the entire film was meant for, but do we really live in a world where everybody gets everything? Where there are total explanations, overarching narratives of the world? Total explanation? We don't.

I thought certainly there were some things that would draw the ire of some people and others that would draw the ire of other people, but really, I just didn't know how it was going to come out.

I've had a lot of negative reactions; tell you about that in a minute.

Krishna is clear about his lack of desire to have his film labelled as 'ethnic' In a society where ethnic has come to mean marginalized, he is sure that he did not want to go through the pain of making a film that would not be seen. In response to my question about the racism in his film, he tells me that there is certainly violent racism in Toronto, but that his film is not about racism, because, "Racism is just a function, it is just a given of life. Everyone's a racist—so what? Am I saying something we don't know already?"

Krishna describes his frustrations of writing Masala. He confides that he had to overcome the "awful fear that he was just talking to [himjself," adding that he believes his writing/film creates a new language and ways of seeing that have not existed before. For Krishna, Masala is an exploration of what happens when you 're within a multitude of discourses but you 're not of any of them. In other words, what happens when you're you are not part of the how and the why of the way things are told. According to Krishna, this is the condition of life for 'third world' people living in the 'first world' because "the discourse has already been determined for you"

Krishna explains that he is ultimately describing people "who are not at home." I ask him if he is speaking of a notion of 'displacement'

I wouldn't even say displaced. Who says displaced? It's ail those people who think they have a place. In other words when they say you're displaced they say, "I own this place, you're displaced: Fuck off." In other words, "Go away."

So what is the discourse? What is the frame? What and where is the home? Perhaps it's only in memory, usually encased in nostalgia or something, but perhaps it's only in memory. And is one at home [in] the place one's at now? If home is something we remember, then we think we can go home.

For the Air India incident, there is no explanation. We would like to think there is, we speculate, we hold our prejudices—Oh, Sikh terrorists or whatever, but who really knows? There are no answers. I'm saying we don't know.

When you don't know why something happened, then it becomes a kind of a vessel for other meanings to start filling it, and what it sort of meant to me is that perhaps we can't go home. If we go home, we realize it'schanged, and one has changed too, having left.

And here is this Sikh character that is unlike the other characters. Home does not exist in his memory. Home is yet to exist: Khalistan.So he doesn't have what all the other characters have—the home encased in nostalgia— because he is a character that is living far away from a home that is yet to exist, a home that he must create. It's not even a home that you could go back to in time and memory. But to go back in geography, not in time and memory. It doesn't exist.

Of course the stereotype is that he's a terrorist. He's not a terrorist.

Convinced that "people's intelligence is really skidding," Krishna defends his film, explaining the meanings behind his supposed stereotypes. For example, in response to audience claims of misogyny in Masala, Krishna questions the reading of the film. He refers to a dream sequence that the young medical student, Anil, has in the film. The point, he says, was to show that particular character's view of women. Krishna is surprised that some do not understand the irony of his portrayals. One controversy surrounds a Sikh character, who throughout the film is working towards the creation of a Khalistan— a separate Sikh state. Until the end of the film, the audience is unsure of how he is going about his plans.

There was a man at the Desh Pradesh screening in Toronto [November 1991] that thought my Sikh characters were being belittled. He mortified me. Who's political hammer was he picking up to bludgeon me with? If he thought the character was being belittled, did he really seethe same picture I saw? And if he thought the character was a terrorist, did he even see the same picture that I made? The point of it was to say that he is not a terrorist. This thing about belittling— what is it? That people can't laugh?

If you're offended you're an idiot. Because to be offended is closure. If you're going to live in a state of closure you might as well just retire, go to bed. Find a grave.

People who take offense are justified in any action that they do. If you're offended, you're obviously right; this is the time that we live in. And I disagree entirely.

If you're offended you're an idiot. Because to be offended is closure. If you're going to live in a state of closure you might as well just retire, go to bed. Find a grave.

The thing with the toilet paper is to say, "What happens when you're put in that position?" Why do people take up arms? One thing is that it's an extreme position. If you're not going to take those kind of extreme positions, then political struggle must come through other means like language, and history. But you don't have access to the media. Do you think any newspaper would actually print the evidence that might actually support the creation of a Khalistan? No. What happened after Indira Gandhi was assassinated? That kind of butchery that happened in Delhi is hardly talked about. So what are you going to do if you don't have access to the media that constructs our narratives, our histories? You have to print it anywhere you can. Print it on toilet paper—send it, give it away, people don't use toilet paper in India.

But audience responses, especially predominantly Indian audiences of Masala have been loud. "Have they really been loud?" Krishna asks, "because no one talks to me." Eager to enter into a dialogue, Krishna tells me that the most he hears of people are during small screenings like the one at Desh Pradesh in Toronto. But he says, "People don't talk back so what can you really learn?" So Krishna, who began writing his film without knowing who his audience was, is still unsure of who is out there. "Unless people talk back you're not going to know who your audience is." For Krishna, for the time being, 'conjecture' of his audience is all he has. But he does know that his audience holds a 'wide range' of people who are quite 'passionate! The problem he says, arises when audiences assume that he is representing a community. But Krishna refuses the position of a Canadian-Indian envoy. "I'm not representing anyone" he says. "I just describe the world as it happens for me. No one represents an entire community'

In the kind of fragmented society that we live in, you find yourself mingling with all sorts of people, invading and being invaded. That's why I called my film Masala. When you use this word and you take it outside of cooking, it describes quite adequately what life is like, in that there's all these different things that make up a masala. But a masala tastes differently than any of those things individually. There are different masalas, of course, and this is what I think we are becoming. The world is changing.

This film is an act of description. It sounds very boring, but ultimately description is what we do. And it's the most essential thing.

When I was writing this film, there were three events that really marked it: the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the incarceration of Rushdie and then the Gulf War. Those were the three events I mean. There were other events in between, like Oka and all that....

I really wondered,...the world, I think, is finally coming to a head. This feeling that all these discourses, these frames of the world, these subjective constructions, which are then imposed and then called objective realities or explanations of the world—they're bullshit.

What we have are battles throughout the world about the definition of "home". Look at Quebec—who's home is it? You have First Nations people, Native people saying, "This is our fucking home, this is our land," and I think it's going to take maybe ten years, maybe 100. People don't feel part of discourses anymore.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Vinita Srivastava
Vinita Srivastava is a children's author and a videographer in Toronto.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
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Britannia Art Gallery
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