“The Bengaluru-based director’s exceedingly sensitive film is about an Anglo Indian family that moves from Kolar to the big city and crumbles,”writes Bishweshwar.
Much before Bengaluru became a world-city, saw its name changed, and more flyovers and a swank new Metro snaked in; it had lived a life.
Times have changed and so has Bengaluru. Almost on the edge of a breathless anxiety, like many other cities now, it now boasts of countless IT parks and has lost its salubrious nature. There are only a few pockets left. Stripped of its slowly disappearing neighbourhood there are stories that have lived when perhaps Bengaluru was slow, just getting into the breakneck speed of development. Leslie Carvalho’s The Outhouse strolls into the era before the big boom happened. People came for prospects and slowly made the city their home, yet lamenting on the world old charm it once boasted, amidst the fast changing canvas. This change is quite evident in The Outhouse.
The plight of a community
The film focuses on the Anglo Indian Community. The community of British India is now a handful that gathers at community gatherings, school reunions and hockey matches. Their life is now paler, except for those who have migrated to the west or down-south to Australia. Yet, in this struggle for identity, they have held their pride, memories, and an optimism to overcome difficulties. This change is reflected in no other community, as in them. For they decided to stay not really knowing what the future had in store for them.
Many experiments in Cinema have been attempted to document the lives of Anglo Indians. One major outpost is Calcutta where in Bow Barracks there have been numerous stellar endeavours. My personal favourite has been 36 Chowringhee Lane (Aparna Sen, 1981). Having lived my early years and studying in one of their institutions, I had Anglo Indian classmates. 36 is the film that poetically showed where the community stands in a majoritarian society. Labelling or stereotyping is standard practice of such societies.
Kolar is a mining town 120 kilometers south of Bengaluru. What it unearthed set the course of journey for many Anglo Indian families. The Bharat Gold Mines as is known now, was once an Anglo Town. The managers, the owners, the inspectors lived an active social life post working hours living in pristine bungalows. The Anglo Indian community in Bengaluru has its roots dotting its way to Kolar. With the mines passing hands to government control, the Anglo Indians slowly started fading from the work force. Modern India’s modern masters preferred a workforce that was more coloured. The Anglo Indian stood as a sore thumb. The migration threw them to different parts of the world but the stigma they faced on their home turf followed them wherever they went.
Leslie’s outhouse in The Outhouse is the Anglo Indian community. The story line is simple – a marriage that is failing to hold together amidst the pressure of family and the city life. But in this falling there are many fallings, uprising and also a portrait of a community that has its own trappings and escapes.
The opening shot of the film is a Bird’s eye pan of Majestic, at that point a major terminal and point of disembarkment for migrants. With the city established, Leslie gets into the quaint neighbourhoods. Milton Street where the film is shot in a big bungalow with an outhouse was in many sense a very much an Anglo Indian neighbourhood in its heydays. Houses with name boards signing off as Bird, Parridge and Peacocks are still rare but not uncommon sight. In one such house or rather an outhouse Ben and Priscilla move in with baggage and kids. It makes a picture perfect site to have them around- almost foreign to admire, yet desi in mannerisms and lifestyle. There are no chandeliers hanging or candle lit dinners. There is just the daily drudgery of living and the cold comfort of married life.
Priscilla is talented, but Ben is possessive and suspicious of Priscilla’s every move. He lives in a utopia of being the man of the house and in charge, when he is barely making a living. But his ego knows no bounds. Alcoholic, abusive and egoist, Ben then wreaks havoc on Priscilla. As Priscilla’s sister Clair rightly puts it in one scene, “What did you see in that asshole?” Priscilla and her sister are two extreme spectrum of the Anglo Indian community. Clair is all that Priscilla is not. She is rocking it in an advertising agency. She has multiple dates. She swears, smokes, drinks, is fiercely independent and is not scared to call a spade a spade. Her confidence is Ben’s insecurity. He fears one day Priscilla will follow her footsteps. Controlling her freedom is hence, the best safety net for his own existence. Always ranting, judging, and preaching, he is a man on the edge.
Ben carries other deep rooted prejudices. Of being targeted at work for being an Anglo Indian. Of being made to do more work where perhaps the non-white gets away. This logic primarily comes from the fact that Anglo Indians, by virtue over their command on English, later pocketed many white collared jobs and in a globalised world. The did good in the service and other ancillary industries. Economic migration moved them from their roots to bigger cities where they felt exploited. Between Ben’s Tantrums, the needs of two young children and her ambition to stand on her own feet, the outhouse shelters Priscilla till she has to take a decision. It again comes to a moral cauldron where Priscilla has to decide her own path and in this she will just be a mother and an individual.
Made on a tight budget and shot on film by Cinematographer S.Ramachandra, music by the talented Gerard Machado with excellent acting by the main casts; Priscilla Corner playing Priscilla Morrow, Ratan Thakore Grant playing Ben Morrow and Judith Roby Grant playing Claire and equally good performances by the supporting cast Chippy Ganjee and Polie Sengupta, The Outhouse had a fair chance of winning in the 1998 International Film festival of India. A blurb from Outlook India on that year’s festival speaks on how close Leslie’s film was to getting the podium but missed it.
“This year, for instance, the organisers had a golden opportunity to push a promising first time Indian Director; the Bengaluru based Leslie Carvalho, under the competition spotlight. His exceedingly sensitive film, The Outhouse, about an Anglo Indian family that moves from Kolar to Bengaluru and crumbles under the pressures of big city existence, has attracted rare reviews and could well have been among the award winners at the 29th IFFI.”
The Outhouse also made it to the Kerala International film festival and did the festival circuits before disappearing into oblivion. It’s twenty years past and there has been a sort of revolution in filmmaking with the multiplex changing the way films are watched. Audiences have become more discerning and there is more room for more flavour in storyline and technique.
It is tad bit sad that the film got a limited theatrical release. It was released in plaza in Bengaluru, and a few other towns like Mangalore, Calcutta, and Thiruvananthapuram. It could have been one of the first few crossover films as we know it today. Even after 20 years the story feels as fresh and as relevant to the social constructs of our society. The struggle of the Anglo Indian community continues with an even more globalised and fast-paced city. The area where the film was shot is now left with only few bungalows which are on the verge of extinction. Old structures are razed to the ground and overnight barricaded with blue tin sheets. The house is brought to rubble. The old windows, doors and artefacts are sold to antique dealers. At most few trees survive and they are mute witness to the stories that the houses around have lived.
Leslie’s next project which is still in the scripting process and awaiting funds is more on the lines of Sydney Poitier’s ‘To sir with love’. He now wants to give his stories wings and move to a larger PAN Indian scenario. Without spelling out the details he chuckles that it’s about the travails of students who comes to India on cultural exchange programmes and their first hands experience of India. I joke with Leslie that his stories are all about communities or people caught in a larger web. It’s about transmigration. He says maybe that’s true but he is also writing a book called ‘Lust and the backwaters’ that talks about a love story between a local and a visitor. “Are there any chances of the book being made into a film?” I question without a reply. I guess it’s too early to predict. We will wait eagerly for Leslie next to grab the front row seats this time or maybe watch it inside the comforts of our homes on a Netflix or Amazon. Only time will tell.
Bishweshwar is a poet, author, and photographer. He currently lives in Bengaluru.