COVID-19, domestic labour and the problem of the ‘noble servant’ in cinema

The stories of employer-employee relationships emerging during the lockdown are in sharp contrast to what Hindi cinema prefers to show

Updated - June 02, 2020 11:58 am IST

Published - May 30, 2020 04:02 pm IST

Still from ‘Parasite’.

Still from ‘Parasite’.

Around the mid-point of the Oscar-winning Parasite , right before it pivots to another gear, is a conversation that sums up the film for me. “The madam… is rich but still nice,” says Kim Ki-taek, the father, who is a chauffeur for madam and her family. “Nice because she’s rich,” says his wife Chung-sook, who is a housekeeper in the same family. “Hell, if I had all this money, I’d be nice too.” The four members of the impoverished Kim family in Seoul have conned their way into the employ of a wealthy family.

Chung-sook’s retort has been on my mind as we go through the lockdown, arguably the harshest in the world. There’s been a lot of niceness on display, about domestic staff, on social media. I use the word ‘display’ descriptively, not in disdain or irony. Several people have spoken of paying their staff’s full salaries and encouraged others to do the same. Some have spoken of realising how much labour their staff put in, of enquiring about their well-being, supplying them with essentials.

A great deal of un-niceness has shown up as well. In the very first week, a video emerged of a woman in a car just outside a residential complex arguing heatedly with the watchman. She has a child next to her and a masked, silent woman in the back seat she refers to as “ meri maid”. The watchman has instructions that domestic staff cannot be allowed in, but the woman challenges this furiously, honking continuously for maximum intimidation, “I am not here to sweep, mop, cook and wash dishes,” she says, before eventually driving in triumphantly.

Soon, reports began emerging of domestic workers not being paid in full, some not at all. Early this month, a tweet described a family in Defence Colony who unceremoniously threw out a cook they had hired recently when she tested positive for the virus. She waited, weeping, on the street until the Delhi government sent help.

What’s unprecedented about this lockdown is how it has blocked access to cheap domestic labour, a staple of urban India. In the post-Independence era, when wealthy families moved from houses to apartments, as researchers Seemin Qayum and Raka Ray note, it pushed a change from ‘live-in’ help to part-time help. Also, the ‘joint family’, which had meant the unpaid labour of several women, broke down. Women joining the workforce and men not helping with housework meant a huge dependence on domestic help.

Through the lens

As we entered the first week of lockdown, Parasite became available for streaming in India. Did the film make us examine our “niceness” towards domestic labour? What did Parasite show us about ourselves? Interestingly, Gully Boy , the Indian entry to this year’s Oscars, also features an employer-employee relationship which, while not the film’s focus, frames the action and characters. Murad, the ‘gully boy’ of the title, is the son of a driver to a wealthy Mumbai household; his stepmother is their maid. If period British cinema has the upstairs-downstairs dynamic, both Parasite and Gully Boy offer a sharp back seat-front seat dynamic.

When his father breaks his leg, Murad reports for duty. “Your father is a driver. A servant’s son becomes a servant,” his uncle tells him. It is this dead end that triggers his verse, and helps him break into a different class of opportunities. But unlike Parasite , Gully Boy turns a blind gaze on the employers. Murad is from a poor Dharavi family, but his problems are caused by his volatile, dominating father. His mentor, MC Sher, has a drunk for a father. The film’s compelling songs speak of inequality, “eight rooms for four people”, “cars as long as hovels for entire families”, but there is no spotlight on the employers who presumably have the eight rooms and sleek cars. In the absence of such critique, it seems to suggest that poverty is caused by the violence and alcoholism of the poor and a remote ‘economy’. Those who directly control Murad’s life, his employers, are let off the hook.

Gully Boy is unusual in Hindi cinema in that it tells the story from the perspective of the domestic help, but it continues the tradition of romanticising the ‘servant’ and ‘master’ relationship; in particular upholding the ‘servant’ as a noble, upright figure, the classic ‘Ramu kaka ’ of countless Hindi films. In the beginning of the 90s, when Hindi films turned to urban settings, the domestic help became less visible, until Sooraj Barjatya upgraded the figure to the hero’s friendly sidekick in Maine Pyar Kiya (1989), a role Laxmikant Berde reprised in Barjatya’s Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! five years later. Director Anurag Kashyap, whose gritty black comedy is at the other end of the Barjatya spectrum, nevertheless replayed the family retainer as hero’s sidekick in Manmarziyan (2018). Piku (2015) had a Ramu kaka in Budhan, the attendant for the elderly father.

Still from ‘Gully Boy’.

Still from ‘Gully Boy’.

Where are the real stories?

Worldwide, domestic work is a poorly-paid and unorganised sector, with little or no enforceable rights and a high probability of human rights and safety violations. For instance, passports of staff are routinely confiscated or their personal details submitted for police verification. By any standards, these are violations of human rights and dignity. In India, this is compounded by poor salaries, dehumanising work conditions and caste prejudices. A 2012 government survey estimates that 3.9 million people are employed as domestic workers in India, but a 2014 report by SEWA pegs it at a much higher 50 million. The lack of reliable data is telling.

The stories of employer-employee relationships emerging during the lockdown are in sharp contrast to what Hindi cinema shows: the loyal family retainer or even family friend as in Bawarchi . Is it possible to hang out with the person who first submits your details to the police? Is it possible to ignore the fact that you can’t enter your employer’s home because you are the driver? Murad seems to emerge from the wellspring of ‘noble servitude’ in Hindi cinema. Where is the antagonism, the raised hackles, the mutual disregard that Parasite shows? Even Zoya Akhtar’s short in Lust Stories , a searing take on the casual sex a young man enjoys with his domestic help, shows no opposition to his actions, just resignation.

Academic María Mercedes Vázquez Vázquez said in an interview that filmmaking isn’t only a function of the politics and aesthetics of filmmakers, but also their socio-economic class. The award-winning Roma, one of a number of Latin American films to look at society through the staff-employer lens, casts an empathetic gaze at Cleo and her long, hard days, but we never hear Cleo’s voice, as critic Richard Brody notes. The film remains only the nostalgic memories of director Alfonso Cuaron.

Cinema and art are powerful mediums to assuage class guilt. Arguably, Hindi cinema’s ‘noble servant’ is a defence mechanism, a little clapping and candlelight tribute instead of genuine political honesty. Why not do what Parasite does? Portray subalterns as resourceful and intelligent, even violent, without eroding their dignity?

I’ll end with Mrinal Sen’s Bengali film Kharij (1982). A young, affluent couple employs a boy not much older than their own son in a Left-run, 80s Calcutta. The boy dies one night, possibly due to a gas leak in the kitchen where he sleeps. In the ensuing investigation, we occasionally see the boy’s father, but mostly we see the affluent couple and we realise they are not nice at all.

Sen uses the real first names of his actors and gives them his own surname. The message couldn’t be clearer — these people are us. The Sens could have easily given the boy a separate room in their large house, like they offer his father when he comes to collect his son’s belongings. Towards the end, when the boy’s father comes up to take the husband Anjan’s leave and raises his hand, Anjan flinches, expecting to be slapped. But the man is only folding his hands in a namaste. Yet, by then, we know that Anjan deserves the slap.

The Kolkata-based independent journalist writes on public health, politics and cinema.

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