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A FilmExposed Film Review

I for India

I for India

Dir: Sandhya Suri, 2005, UK, 70mins, English & Hindi with subtitles

This thought-provoking documentary charts the Suri family’s four-decade-long relationship with Britain and India. It all started in 1965 when Yash Pal Suri, director Sandhya’s father, migrated with his young family to the English town of Darlington during what became known as ‘the brain drain of India’. As a doctor Yash had been attracted to the opportunities advertised by a Britain enduring workforce shortages in the medical professions. Wanting to establish audio-visual communication with family ‘back home’, he bought two sets of Super 8 cameras, projectors, and reel-to-reel recorders, and shipped one back. The ensuing correspondence expressed a desperate yearning for his parents and for India despite his professional success in England. Returning to India to live in 1982, it was less than a year until the family departed again for Britain.

Opening with a wonderfully absurd – but very much epochal – excerpt from a 1969 BBC ‘educational’ programme for immigrants in which the presenter explains to his target audience the connection between a light switch and a light, I for India immediately announces its intent. It’s a tale of two countries, of two cultures: for instance, the tricksiness of the title is to pastiche the patronising tone of such immigrant-orientated programmes (‘I’ is indeed for India) but also to proclaim support for the homeland left behind (‘I’ as subject pronoun). Clips from other contemporary programming contextualise the ambivalent greeting extended to the immigrants. In one, the presenter’s casually xenophobic address establishes dynamics of ‘them and us’: ‘those foreigners’ taking ‘our’ jobs; of course he fails to mention that ‘those foreigners’ were welcomed with open arms by industries suffering from a deficit of qualified employees.

The documentary is skilfully constructed from a wealth of home movies, audio documents, and present-day footage to give a coherent – if sporadically jolting due to the second half’s sudden insertion of direct-to-camera interviews – account of diaspora. The analogical quality of this one family representing many others makes I for India truly greater than the sum of its initially parochial parts.

What’s more, the ‘storytelling’ is often accomplished poetically, with psychological insight intimated through the use of editing techniques and differing aesthetic perspectives. The present-day scenes shot in India exude the relative exoticism of the country whereas the hard digital texture of the equivalent scenes in England reveals a harsher reality. But I for India doesn’t plump for that expected juxtaposition of a prosaic England with an idyllic India. It elaborates a far more complex (hi)story in which existential contentment is but a chimera.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about I for India is the importance of various forms of recording media. Whereas Yash’s (silent) Super 8 films give a superficial depiction of happiness, the contemporaneous audio recordings offer a bleaker, more honest, account. And the significance of audio-visual communication comes full circle during eldest daughter Vanita’s paroxysm of yearning via webcam from her new home in Australia – an ironic conclusion to this little gem of a documentary.

I for India is showing at the ICA, London between 3 - 16, 24 - 31 August 2007.


Matthew Supersad

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