& occasionally about other things, too...

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Marco Hülser's Masala Chai

Continued from the post above

It was with such a heavy baggage of the past (and all of the aforementioned is but a mere glimpse) that I bought tickets to see the documentary Masala Chai at the recently-concluded Reel Asian Film Festival in Toronto’s Innis Townhall. Marco Hülser is a German filmmaker who’d been fascinated by India’s intoxication with tea for several years, compelling him to document it fascination on film.

Masala Chai is a multilayered documentary that explores the lives of five individuals involved in selling chai to customers. The documentary follows the lives of five different tea makers: Yogesh, a US-educated business owner of a posh teahouse in Pune; Mohammad, an elderly tea-maker who has worked in film production for 40 years; Gouri, an outspoken teen assisting with her family tea stall in Kolkata; and Sushanta and Subodh, who run small tea stalls in Darjeeling and Delhi, respectively.

Each of the tea sellers has a story to tell, and while they narrate their stories, we learn of the multifaceted, nuanced, multilayered society that is India. All of them except Yogesh are living on the margins and in extreme poverty.

The filmmaker shows India as it is, without embellishments, and without trying to create false hopes in the audience’s hearts and minds that somehow the conditions of the tea sellers will miraculously and dramatically improve.

These people belong to those strata of the society that gets adversely affected by the minutest calamity – whether personal or because of an official policy change such as demonetisation. Hülser succeeds in extracting personal stories from each of these people, without ever seeming to be intruding. And all of them have strong narratives.

Yogesh is ambitious and wants to emulate the big American-style barista coffee shops. But he doesn’t have the deep pockets to compete with the Starbucks of the world. He tries hard to give his customers an experience of having a hot beverage in cool environs but knows and understands that it isn’t going to be easy to survive and make money in a tough market.

Khan, who makes tea for filmmaking unit, is looking forward to retiring. He came to Bombay to find a life in the movies but ended up making tea for people who make movies. He believes his children will continue the business. Gouri is enthusiastic young entrepreneur assisting her dad in the business of making and serving tea from a roadside stall in Kolkata. She believes in being perfect in making tea and believes in satisfying her customers; unlike her dad, who she says, only wants to make money.

Subodh has also experienced the hard knocks of life and branched out on his own, with his own roadside tea business in old Delhi. He has taken a few apprentices, who are immigrant labourers (just as he was many years ago) from Bihar and who will eventually start their own ventures somewhere in Delhi.

The perkiest and precocious protagonist of the documentary is, of course,  Sushanta, who has married to a man from a lower caste and is the subject of scorn and ridicule by her family. Yet, she gamely continues to assist her husband in his tea business and rears her daughter be cajoling her to focus on education because it’s only through education, she believes, that her daughter can change her life.

Hülser is able to not only show these petty self-employed folks in the midst of their poverty and squalor but is also able to successfully portray their aspirations and through them the aspirations of the millions of Indians such as them. 

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