Documentary: "I For India"

I recently got a chance (thanks, Kate) to see an excellent documentary called I For India. It's a kind of family documentary that spans nearly forty years. When Yash Suri moved to England, in 1965, he decided to buy two Super 8 film cameras, two tape recorders, and two projectors. One set he kept, the other he sent to his family in Meerut. He filmed and recorded his family's life and growth through the 1970s and 80s, and his family in India did the same -- and they sent each other the tapes, as a way of staying in touch. The result is an amazing archive of what happens to a family when one part of it goes abroad. Yash's daughter Sandhya Suri assembled and edited the material into a unique 70 minute statement. Here is a brief clip:

(You can also supposedly see a clip from the film at the BBC, though when I tried it I couldn't get the video to play.)

For me, I For India captured a lot of the strangeness of the diasporic experience, including the parents' constant and nagging sense of displacement, the parent/child generation gap, and above all, the difficulty in returning home -- even when "home" might be all you think about. The Suris aren't the only family to keep planning to return home, only to keep delaying the plan by a few years (my father, for instance, used to say this for years; eventually, he dropped the plan). In the late 1980s, the family actually did try to move back to Meerut; Suri, a doctor, thought he could set up a clinic there, but it didn't take. (There's no ruby slippers; home always changes when you leave it.)

On the purely visual register, it's interesting just to compare what the Suri family in Darlington, England chooses to film against what the Suri family in Meerut films. In the English footage, you see the nuclear family, various tourist excursions, snow, railroads, the Buckingham Palace guards. In Meerut, the footage Sandhya Suri uses is almost entirely of extended family gatherings. The family in England is effectively alone, which means it is sometimes painfully isolated -- but it also enables them to go off and have certain kinds of adventures. The extended family in India has a very different kind of experience.

Often, in diasporic novels like The Namesake, for instance, the center of the story is the part of the family that leaves -- usually because the writer comes from that background herself. What's unique about I For India is the way the old film footage allows the director to in some sense tell both sides of the story at once: we have the point of view of the family that left (and constantly mourned what it had left behind), but also that of the family that stayed behind (and mourned the loss of the ones who left).

I For India has been reviewed positively by virtually everyone who's seen it, including The New York Times and The Guardian. One company is distributing it on DVD in the U.S., though it's very expensive (you might be able to track down a copy from Amazon Canada). If anyone knows of other ways to get access to this film, I'm sure readers will be grateful.