Gitanjali Rao’s new short film Chai, featuring tea vendors from four States, including Kerala, depicts lives on the margins of society

Award-winning animator and filmmaker Gitanjali Rao has a knack for making short films that explore complexities of contemporary life in the most uncomplicated frames. By leaving a lot if things unsaid, Gitanjali provokes the viewers’ thought process. Orange and Printed Rainbow, two of her award-winning works, have gone places on the international film festival circuit. She is perhaps the only Indian to win three awards at the Cannes Critics Week Section in 2006.

Now, over a glass of tea, she brings us untold stories from different places in India. Her latest short, Chai, stirring quite an online debate, sensitively touches upon subjects such as displacement, migration, issues in rural India, homelessness and so on – all served with a deft touch of humour, and a deft hand, through the stories of four tea vendors. Four of them – a teenager from Kashmir, an 80-year-old man in a busy Kerala bus stand, a 10-year-old boy from Maharashtra and an 18-year-old woman from Rajasthan, throw light on why they chose to migrate and how.. In the process, the viewer gets to see and hear fascinating accounts of everyday lives The movie was made for ‘India Is’ series, financed by Viacom and Google, and produced by AKFPL (Anurag Kashyap and Guneet Monga), as a bunch of five short films made by five different filmmakers, on India. It’s only for internet and online streaming. Excerpts from an e-mail interview with the filmmaker.

On what basis were the four protagonists of Chai chosen?

I was working with the idea of having testimonies of four or more characters who migrate to cities from diverse parts of India, without wanting to hold onto stereotypes – stereotypes being a Punjabi, a Tamilian, a Gujarati or a Bengali. I wanted their reasons for migrating also to be common but not typical because stereotypes have been documented enough. I have been dealing with these characters in my animated films for a long time, so I seemed to know them, their stories, and was looking for a medium to tell them. This short seemed to be the perfect opportunity to tell their untold stories.

We do not get to see the faces of the four. Was that a deliberate decision to show how we tend to ignore certain faces in the crowd although their presence is so necessary for our comfort?

Yes. In the hustle of daily life, we never seem to notice these faces or hear their voices except when it means a transaction. Especially with a cup of tea which is almost always consumed in a hurry or as a break. Besides by not showing their faces, they tend to stand for a number of people without becoming individuals. I wanted them to stand for a lot of persons through their stories, not just themselves.

Unlike Printed Rainbow, this is a mix of animation and real-life scenes where nostalgia transports them far away to the villages of their imagination, only the chaiwala from Kerala has been left out…

This was also a deliberate decision. The chaiwala from Kerala has almost lost his personal memory of his native village but has more of a world view, where he assimilates his nostalgia, not at a personal level but as an idea evolved through more experience of life, into a social statement. The younger three still nurse their longing and separation with personal nostalgia.

What next?

I am working on a short animation film called TrueLoveStory. A Bombay story of love between a street boy and girl in the overpowering presence of Bollywood. It should be ready early next year.

Celebrating India

The narrative is a progression from the brewing of tea to the glass of hot tea.... what is your story behind chai?

The narrative progresses along with the stories of the characters unfolding. A cup of tea is not the end. It’s just the beginning of brewing another cup of tea for the next break. I feel lives of people are full of stories that start and end like a cup of tea but the process of life continues with these little beginnings and endings to form a cycle that never ends. Migration too, for me, is a process that starts and ends for individuals but is a never ending process for a civilisation. Just like a cup of tea! Another interesting fact is that all the teas shown in the film are brewed differently, prepared differently and served differently but they all serve the same purpose. This is so typical of India. Rarely do you see tea tasting different in other parts of the world within the same country. Tea is also something that was introduced to us Indians by the British. Yet, as typically Indian, we absorbed the tradition and gave it diversity and character like no other people can. Since the ‘India Is’ vision was the only criteria for making the shorts, I felt this part of India is worth noticing, showcasing and celebrating.