Where were you when the Air India 747 hurtled out of the sky? Most Indian people I know remember where they were when they heard about the explosion—they remember the shock of the moment and, later, the feelings of betrayal and marginalization.
It was 1985. I was nineteen years old, nearly twenty, had returned from a spring French immersion course in Quebec. I was broke and had to live with my parents. On June 23rd, a couple of days into life with Mom and Dad, I picked up the Vancouver Sun and read about the 'Canadians of East Indian origin' who'd died off Ireland's southwest coast. Who were they...those of-East-lndian-origin people?
I turned on the television, watched the remnants of wreckage being lifted out of the water along with personal effects: dolls, pieces of fuselage, jewellery, pieces of wing, teddy bears, engine parts, purses, furniture. I saw photographs, weeping parents and interviews with those who told anecdotes about the victims.
For the first time in my life I began to see myself as part of a larger community. As a child, I'd avoided the children of Indian immigrants. I hated the social scene, the pressure to be someone I wasn't, the words Paki, Punjab, Hindu, Raghead, Carpetrider. To be in houses with so many people called 'Paki' would have been intolerable. Worse still, I imagined all the parents would be as impossible to deal with as mine were.
Yet when I became clearer about how I was perceived in the media, I began to feel a connection with community concerns in a way I hadn't imagined possible: I became increasingly disturbed by the media focus on the so-called intrigues of Indians in Canada: the Khalistanis, the terrorism, the Indian government spies, Brian Mulroney phoning Rajiv Gandhi, no official Canadian government presence at the Toronto memorial service. All distractions from the central, human tragedy. I remember the rage I felt. I remember feeling betrayed. Damn it! If I were to die in a plane at least they could call me Canadian!
Memories resurfaced. Being chased as a nine-year-old by Gene, who was twelve and a near juvenile delinquent (he called me "Paki", threw me to the ground, asked me to beg him to let go). Arguing with my mother, "I'm Canadian; I'm not Indian; I'll never have an arranged marriage."
Mother arguing with me, "You're not Canadian! You're Indian! You're not white! They'll never accept you!"
I remember the rage I felt. Damn it! If I were to die in a plane, at least they could call me Canadian!
There was a constant fear of attack and a constant debate about who I was.
There were no simple solutions. No clear way to deal with the issues, no easy way to make a statement: I'm this but I'm not that. How could there be?
Those statements are lies. We—all of us— are combinations of this and that.
* * *
On the phone to Amarillo, Texas, I ask Srinavas Krishna, director, writer and co-producer of Masala, about the kinds of comment he's received about the film.
"People use the film the way they wish," he says, "and it ceases to be my film."
I tell him that I sympathize with his concerns, but that I do not want to write an argumentative piece.
"Who told you to do that? Your editors? Go ahead and be argumentative."
I feel agitated by his energy because there is argument and anger in my attitude towards the anonymous murmurings of discontent.
"Why do all these accusations alight on me and my film?" Krishna says. "Why not Basic Instinct or some forty-million-dollar Hollywood picture that deserves it? Why me and my low-budget film?"
He's now clearly irritated. "People," he says, "search for a moral high ground wanting to occupy the hill from which they can declaim," He becomes more blunt. "The origins of the discontent lie elsewhere, not in my film."
"Were you at the screening of the film atthe Vancouver Film Festival?" he asks me. I wasn't. He continues. "After the film, there was a forum at which people ranted at me. 'I can't show it to my children,' 'Why is there so much bad language?'
"It became bizarre. People on one side of the theatre would clap when one person said one thing; people on the other side would clap when another said something else. Arguments broke out. I was screaming and couldn't be heard. The moderator of the event became nervous as if he were wondering whether a riot would break out when you put a bunch of darkies in one room.
"After the film, the younger people came up to me and said, 'Don't listen to them, we liked the film.' I wondered where they were when the others were savaging me. They could have spoken up, they can become part of the debate."
"They went with their parents," I say. Srinivas laughs, but becomes serious. "They're stuck in some pre-Oedipal stage," he says.
I ask him about the notion of an Indian 'community' in Canada. "Before we are Indians, he says, "we are Punjabis or Gujeratis or whatever. There's no pan-national identity. So I don't see a 'community' When Italy won the World Cup, you could recognize the Italian community in Toronto. But an Indian community doesn't really exist except maybe as some kind of umbrella organization.
"The Air India explosion started a coalescence, but now even that is being subverted by those for whom it is the most important, expatriate Indians.
"My film picks up on that. People who aren't Indian can't imagine the power of that explosion on the psyche of expatriates. They have no idea."
* * *
Rita Tikkoo is arguably Masala's most dignified character. When her sister Sashi tells her Indian men are "the slime of the slime, the dirt of the earth, the cockroaches in your kitchen sink," Rita considers this. Though she doesn't go so far as to stereotype all 'Indian' men this way, she is aware that she doesn't want to go out with someone as embarrassingly undignified as her boyfriend Anil, the med-student son of Lallu Bhai Solanki. She goes on to have a relationship with anti-hero Krishna, appreciating the novel energy he brings into her life. But she doesn't accept his violence or his characterization of his parents as 'losers.' More and more, she finds herself to be capable of wholeness, integrating the many sides of herself: her sexuality, her opinions
and feelings, her desire for a career of her own choosing, for family and community. At the end of the film, in her grief over Krishna's death, she does not force herself to explain what is inexplicable to her. She waits, gives herself time to feel.
Krishna, too, is searching for identity, relationships, sense of place. Before becoming involved with Rita, he picks up Anil from medical school. Leaning up against a red Pontiac Firebird, Krishna and Anil are accosted by Rita, who calls Anil a 'mother-loving, woman-hating, limp-dick, chicken-shit! Afterwards Krishna confides to Anil, "As far as women are concerned, I've never been involved with Pakis." Anil retorts: "They don't fuck, eh?"
Krishna, open-minded in that he admits he hasn't dated 'Indian' women and doesn't know anything about them, calls them 'Pakis.' Testosterone-pumped Anil, the bore that he is, is only concerned with sex and conformity. Rita, who in Anil's experience presumably doesn't fuck, feels angry that her in-secret boyfriend has no determination of his own and offers her no support.
Three crucial issues arise from all of this: first, in Krishna's dialogue, how we as visible minorities feel about ourselves as women and men on our own and in relationships with each other; second, in Anil's dialogue, attitudes about women and the absurd community proscriptions on sexuality and information about it; third, in Rita's formulation, the possessiveness of'Indian' mothers and attitudes about men: the expectation that men should 'have prospects' falling in line professionally often to the detriment of their developing admirable human qualities.
Rita's psychedelic cinematic fantasy highlights the latter point. In her fantasy, she croons k.d.lang-like to Anil:
It's time you were a man
C'mon, boy, take a stand
Why don't you listen to me
Let your body be free
And take flight
As she flies away from him, she continues her challenge:
You better think hard
About doing some job
Wth your goddamn life
Later, in Hindi, she sings that Anil should leave the cares of the world and give his love to her.
How is Anil to escape Rita's 'pressure'? Conveniently, he falls into an arranged-marriage love-scene fantasy that is absolutely faithful to his on-screen life: the TV aerobics-inspired masturbation, the dominance of his parents' wishes in his life, shown most profoundly when he rages at Krishna in his mom's car ("What you want is shit if you can't satisfy what everyone else wants.") A moment later, he says to Krishna: "Just because your family died on that fucking plane doesn't mean you get to cut your own deals." Anil can't even imagine being his own person after his parents die, let alone when they're alive.
Bahadur Singh, the peaceful Khalistani, is certainly as dignified as Rita. While Rita clearly has decided her home is in Canada, Bahadur Singh is equally committed to Khalistan as the home he must return to. His flaw is his earnestness. He's a genius who does bumble, but he's also hip: of all the adults in the film, he's the one most in tune to the needs of the young lovers Rita and Krishna when they ride in his taxicab ("Go ahead and kiss," he tells them. "Young lovers must not waste time.") Lord Krishna asks the irreverent question: "Why can't a god simply be a man?" His near abdication of his power triggers the explosion of the Air India jet and is symbolic of how the migration of Indians to Canada has removed for many the underpinnings of religious and social life that, in India, gave continuity to their lives. His flirtations with Grandma Tikkoo, delightful as they are (both in the range of expression on Tikkoo's face and the sublimated sexuality that surfaces when Lord Krishna mischieviously suggests that he wishes she were younger), raise the issue of how much respect and caring we really offer elders and what we assume—in our belief that they have transcended sexual feeling—about their longings and desires.
* * *
Whatever we assume about old people, we do know about the longings of youth. Or do we? When Krishna, searching for Rita, approaches Mr. Tikkoo during the religious procession, Tikkoo, upset that Krishna has slept with his daughter, says: "You never even spoke to me." Krishna responds: "I'm speaking to you now." To which Tikkoo retorts: "You should speak before, not after, you idiot!" Krishna pauses, bewildered.
It is the bewilderment of a young person who has been regarded as an outsider by his community, is offered little useful guidance, struggles to find his own way and voice, returns ready to begin a dialogue and is, in effect, told that by making his own choices, he has taken an irrevocable step and can no longer be accepted.
This is the precise position of many first-generation Canadians, ones who do not speak their mother-tongue, ones who received little guidance f rom the community on how to deal healthily with North American life because their parents or others were unsure themselves. They go out on their own, wondering about the stereotypes they have received about Western culture, white people, women, drugs and rock'n'roll. They find out what they need to know, come back, and say, "Well, I believe, this, this, and this, and I don't believe that, that, and that."
And the elders say, essentially, "Too late. Go away. We weren't open to your discoveries in the first place. They're a threat to us and the young ones."
But are they? It's probable that the threat is the insecurity of a community that expects 'its' artists and filmmakers—which it only claims when they are successful—to represent them in a way that will necessarily ennoble them.
* * *
I think that Masala relates in some way to each of us, as individuals, cutting our own deals, choosing how we want to live, create, destroy and present our stories.
If there have been complaints about the film, part of the reason is that it is one of the first of Canadian origin—along with Sam and Me—to receive a wide audience. It is not the film of a single community: such a film would nearly be impossible to develop and write because Indians in Canada come from multifarious backgrounds. This is why I doubt the claim that it is the filmmaker's responsibility to take on the role of pleasing everyone 'Indian' in Canada when India itself is divided, fractured, and erupting with violence (How can one please everyone in Canada when it's impossible to please everyone 'back home'?). Although the Air India disaster brought together many 'Indians' in Canada who had forgotten how their divisions kept them for understanding their profound similarities, the bonds of that experience are dissolving. We need to remember. And film helps provoke our memories. This is something Srinavas Krishna emphasizes. "Masala," he says, "doesn't represent community. It simply creates space to make more films, any kind of film anyone wants. And the fact that some asshole like me went out to do it, means others can too."