I first heard about Lalita from her niece Kusum in a class called Tourists and Vagabonds we were taking at San Francisco Art Institute’s MFA program. On the first day of class, we were each asked to tell a vagabond story from our own life or from someone we knew. Kusum told of her aunt from India who had lost all of her skin pigment and now, living in Canada, was always mistaken for a white person. She said that when her Aunt Lalita travels back to India, cab drivers try to overcharge her, thinking she is a foreigner – which of course, she is in some ways.
I was intrigued by the idea of Lalita as a quintessential global citizen – someone who could “pass” in many different places but not really fit in anywhere. Having a mixed background myself, with a Chinese-American mother and an Italian-American father, I have enjoyed defying racial categories in the United States and blending in during my travels abroad. My family managed a Native American historical site during my childhood, and tourists often thought we were native; when I lived in Ecuador in my 20s, people thought I was Latin American; traveling in China, I was taken for an Uyghur from Xinjiang province. And sometimes I’m still surprised by my own family – I am married to a Dutchman, and we speak a funny mix of English and Dutch at home. My daughters are growing up in a very diverse neighborhood; seven languages are spoken in each of their classrooms. I think my own childhood would have been much different had I come of age with this kind of internationalism rather than the homogeneity of 1970s-80s rural Ohio. At that time, our family was the “diversity.”
So it was Lalita’s skin condition, and the identity issues it created, that first attracted me to her story. I called her up and asked if she would be interested in participating in some kind of film project. Once we met and began filming, I realized that Lalita’s body was actually in a state of continual transformation. The loss of her skin pigment, which had happened thirty years earlier, was just one of many changes that have affected her sense of who she is.
I began filming the medical appointments, diagnostics, and treatments that Lalita was undergoing. They were often visually striking, particularly the various types of scans and x-rays (digital imaging has certainly increased the colorfulness and precision in that field). I saw the drama in Lalita’s present-day medical story, particularly when she was diagnosed with a recurrence of breast cancer, but I also saw complex symbolism in these images. In our interviews, Lalita expressed her story in terms of the metaphorical losses each of her illnesses had wrought: a loss of racial identity with vitiglio, a loss of womanhood with ovarian cancer, and a loss of youth with breast cancer and heart disease.
Despite suffering all of these illnesses, and several others the film doesn’t delve into, Lalita never resorts to victimhood. She has a beautiful, resilient spirit and always finds a way to laugh at life. As we became friends, I wanted to understand that spark in her eyes, that quality that makes her indelible even if her skin pigment was not. So the film began to turn its attention to what makes Lalita who she is. What keeps her going in the face of hardship? Who is she, if she has lost the outward indicators of her ethnicity, her femininity, her youth?
What I have learned is that two things firmly ground Lalita. First, her strong relationships. She and Pierre, her Quebecois husband whom she met when they were both students in Paris, have a wonderful bond that has deepened over the years. Lalita is devoted to her family, despite their being spread over four continents in true diaspora fashion. She talks regularly to her siblings, and is very close to her nieces and nephews; she says this helps make up for her own lack of children. Lalita has close friends throughout the world who go back decades, and she makes a point of visiting them often.
Lalita’s Hindu spirituality provides another inner point of focus amidst the swirl of bodily struggles. While she says that her routine of prayer and fasting began somewhat “as a lark” when she was young, her devotion to Shiva and Hanuman deepened as it seemed to provide positive results. After 30 years of living in the West with a Canadian man, she describes an evolving relationship to her faith. I admire Lalita’s unique merging of Eastern and Western philosophies. She manages to embrace the calm acceptance of her Hindu background, rooted in a belief in reincarnation and the karmic cycle, while also actively pursuing her goals and her own health by seizing on the chance of “this one life” implied in the Western worldview.
Pierre, too, has been influenced by Lalita’s culture. He has adopted several Indian habits, and has engaged in professional historical research in India. Pierre feels quite at home when they travel to India, and enjoys their growing circle of friends there. The couple hopes that when they retire, they can spend half of the year in India and half in Canada. Having recently beaten breast cancer and severe heart disease, Lalita keeps an amazingly positive attitude towards her health and her future.
For my part, I have grown a lot over the four years of making this piece. I have gained an understanding of the complex and evolving connections between the spirit and the body. I have developed as an artist, finding new ways of shooting that bring out the metaphoric potential in the imagery, new approaches to editing that do not rely on direct exposition, and new forms to present my work, such as the two-channel installation version of this piece. Most importantly, I have found the gift of friendship with an amazing woman and her thoughtful, generous husband. The process of creating Indelible Lalita with them has challenged me to contemplate in detail the meaning of one’s life. I hope the film engages viewers and invites them to make their own realizations about body, spirit, and identity.
- Julie Mallozzi, Director