Black, white, and the world between S Vinita

Confession: I don’t like seeing the dark side of the human mind. I am also a committed Bollywood buff. I love seeing romance, sunshine, mustard fields, dancing in the rain, and spontaneous music played by an invisible band. And I love the ‘Yashraj’ banner.

And then I see two films at Films of Desire: Alexandra’s Project(by Rolf de Heer) and See the Sea (by Francois Ozon).

Alexandra’s Project is about Steve, his wife Alexandra and their two children, Emma and Sam. On his birthday, Steve returns from work to an empty home and finds nothing, except a video tape labelled ‘Play Me’. It is a recording made by Alexandra and their children wishing him a Happy Birthday. Once the children leave the television screen, Alexandra begins a striptease. This however takes unusual and unpleasant turns when Alexandra takes Steve through a series of shocking and startling experiences and Steve finds himself imprisoned in his own house with no choice but to watch the whole tape.

The second film See the Sea is about Sasha, a young British woman, living alone with her baby daughter at a peaceful beach community. A stranger, Tatiana, appears at her doorstep wanting to pitch her tent in Sasha’s yard. The two women build an odd rapport, and one can perceive a significant tension between them. The film with rather gory scenes (especially the one of faecal nature) ends on a shocking and morbid note.

On both occasions, I came out of the screening room completely disgusted and overwhelmed by gloom. I did not understand why people made such movies. (My Bollywood-loving mind says movies are for entertainment and entertainment equals romance, sunshine… currently, Bollywood romance also holds true of personal life and I assume that all is well and beautiful everywhere.) I didn’t relate to any of the characters. The entire depiction of violence in intimate relationships made my mind restless and I needed instant gratification by way of immediate and definite answers.

The world around us has always taught us that ’good’ comes in the color of ‘white’, ‘bad’ in the color of ‘black’, and ‘grey’ is a bit of both. The same world has (perhaps) also taught us that it is important to put people and situations in these boxes of black and white as if that is the ultimate solution one can strive towards. In doing so, one has to steer clear from the ‘grey zone’ because that can only be interpreted as being in a state of confusion. This feeling surrounded me as well, and I had gnawing feeling that probably it was this colour preference of mine that was problematic Or worse, maybe I loved only one of the two colors –that of happiness and sunshine.

In terms of black, white, and grey, I was also struck by the portrayal of the characters in the two films. While See the Seahad two distinct characters, that of the victim and perpetrator, the characters of Steve and Alexandra in Alexandra’s Projectcould not be classified into black and white. Both had immense shades of grey. My discomfort arose from my inability to put the two characters in boxes of ‘good’ and bad’.

My professional work requires me to engage with greyness all too often and I, in fact, have pushed others to recognise points of discomfort or questioning which do not have definite answers. My work also deals with violence and violations and I am passionate about addressing such issues. This further nuanced my discomfort: was talking or dealing with violence perfectly fine with me but the visual representation of it was not? Why was I finding viewing the violence between two people so disturbing?

But then again, films from India are full of violence. Is it because the hero who slays the villain always triumphs in the search for the ‘victory of truth and justice’? Or is the violence that I have normally seen, too fantasy-like and I am awed, but not disturbed? Why was I not comfortable with some forms of representation of violence? I was also amazed by the kind of violence that was depicted in both these films: while one was a good amount of blood and gore, the other was at a psychological level extremely unsettling. I was amazed by the similarity of effect both films had on me.’

This probably was the power of representation (aha! moment, finally?!). If these two films caused me to question every concept and belief I have held on to, then how are they bad films? Weren’t they meant to challenge the viewers? They challenged me in asking myself questions I had never asked. These two films specifically made me reexamine my beliefs and ideas about relationships, violence, pleasure and many other concepts that I currently do not have words for, and articulate them in my mind in such a way that there are no black-and-white answers. The films did not only make me face ‘grey’, but also adopt it to my thought processes. At the time of beginning to write this article, I had sought closure but I have not yet found any.

And, I am fine with it.

S. Vinita works with CREA, based in New Delhi, India. She holds a Masters in Social Work with a specialisation in Medical and Psychiatric Social Work. At CREA, her work focusses on facilitating a process of building leadership with women working in community-based groups.