My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
In Srinivas Krishna’s wicked comedy, Masala, airplanes tumble from the sky, Lord Krishna communes with his devotees by television and a priceless postage stamp falls into the hands of an impoverished civil servant. Caught up in all of this is Krishna (played by Srinivas himself), a recovering heroin addict (no tidy ethnic role models here) torn between his need for personal agency and family responsibility. Just to add to the complication, globally renowned Saeed Jaffrey (My Beautiful Laundrette, Gandhi) plays three roles in the film alongside the remarkable Zohra Sehgal (Jewel in the Crown, Caravaggio) and Jaffrey’s own daughter, Sakina. As its culinary namesake suggests, Masala (Hindi: a fusion of different cooking spices) is an amalgam of distinctive styles and sometimes caustic attitudes, inspired by sources as eclectic as the 17 th Century Irish novel Tristram Shandy, Canadian teledrama, and Bombay musicals.
Lawrence Chua Last time I saw you, the Indian Festival Commissioner had invited Masala to Bangalore. Then, after he found out what it was about, or what he thought it was about, he rescinded his invitation.
Srinivas Krishna It’s so touchy. These are things that are usually left unsaid. There is no militancy in my film. It’s all on the level of a farcical misunderstanding. An Air India plane blew up, flying from Montreal to Bombay in ’85. People think Sikh terrorists blew up the plane, but no one really knows why it blew up. My film relies on that history as its reference to the world. There were all sorts of investigations but they never came to anything. One just wants to know what happened, even if it was tactical error. These kind of events are irreducible, and they can symbolize many things.
LC Besides death, what else does it mean for you?
SK For instance, my grandmother told me that the first time she saw a plane was in 1930, sitting on the porch of her house in India: this piece of metal flying through the air. Brrrrrrr, you know. She told me this after she got on a plane and emigrated to Canada, 50 years after seeing that plane. People have different ways of experiencing the world. My family got onto a plane for the first time to emigrate to Canada in 1970, and since then, so much of my experience in life has been on airplanes. For my mother to travel from Madras to Toronto was a tremendous experience. To me, it’s nothing. Anywhere in the world is less than 24 hours away. I was thinking, what kind of life is this when you have that at your disposal? You go to different places without really traveling, even though on a plane you seem to have the experience of traveling. You just have to shift the idea of home.
LC The character you play in the film, Krishna, is a child of that displacement and privilege. His immediate family dies on the plane that blew up and the story unfolds when he begins to reconcile with his extended family.
SK Mother, father, brother, sister, son, daughter, cousins, these are essential ways of talking about how people relate to each other. There’s this chaotic lifestyle, a derangement of how they relate. I don’t mean that in a negative or positive way. When you move from one country to another, you take along this whole set of values. North America is a place that asks you to invent yourself. To come here and get a job means, “Don’t tell me about your fucking problems, don’t tell me about the fact that you are a refugee, or where you come from, we don’t want to know.” A basic conformity is asked of you, which means you can’t come in to the office and suddenly ignore all of the phone calls and lay your mat down and face the east and do your prayers. It’s not about cultures, it’s about capitalism. The most important thing is that you’re productive. That’s more important than your parents, siblings, lover or your enemies, even. In Canada in 1970, they started this policy of multiculturalism. It’s astounding to me that there’s a country beside the United States where that has been official policy for 22 years and it’s virtually unknown here.
LC Do you think “multiculturalism” here is very different?
SK It’s actually government policy in Canada, so it’s got popular impact.
LC Yes, but in terms of what it really accomplishes, which seems to be just a way of appeasing people without giving them any real power.
SK That is true, but the assertion of a multicultural state is the fact. “Let me just assert it, let me say the obvious.” Because everyone who thinks that it’s not is just kidding themselves. My basic feeling about multiculturalism is that it’s not an ideology, it’s actually a lived experience. The U.S. demands that you chuck your history or privatize it. You put it in the home, and then when you come out, you’re a perfect corporate executive or you’re a very sexy guy or girl or whatever. You’re just marketable one way or another. In Canada, the actual political purpose of multiculturalism is clearing more space and it’s given the debate power. People can say it’s a sort of appetite and yeah, the politics of equality can always go toward appetite. But, I think there’s a better word than multiculturalism, it’s “masala.” Multiculturalism in a sense assumes that there is an ultimate identity which I’m not sure is true. We have multiple identities, and that’s a basic truth of life.
LC None of which are necessarily static.
SK There’s no essential Indian culture whose differences you maintain and other people respect. It’s a very basic problem in life that you are always stepping on people’s toes, and people are always stepping on yours. People are changing. That was the substance of my film. It’s one of those things that I just took for granted. I wasn’t really addressing it as a problem. But, I do think that there is value in the cynical look at multiculturalism as a policy. You can endlessly fragment and fracture yourself to go the way of identity as a way of talking about politics. It’s a way of carving up public life. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t act in mainstream life. But, there is the problem of being unable to relinquish the idea that we’re not really of this place. “We are elsewhere, life is elsewhere.” Particular problems arise from your commitment to a place or the people. You can dabble and then get on a plane and leave again. If you can get on a plane and go anywhere, then you have a responsibility to the people in all of the places you go to. The danger of this kind of life is that life becomes, people become, some sort of boutique. Yes, I’m a citizen of the world. In fact, where I live tonight I had Turkish food and tomorrow I’m going to have Laotian food and the day after I’m going to have North Vietnamese food. I hear this all the time in places like New York. People say, “Yes, I’m an artist but I don’t have that much time anymore because I’m also a psychologist, and a novelist, and a yoga teacher.” To that I say, “Actually, all you are is a fucked up, displaced human being.” (laughter) The basic problem that I am trying to describe in Masala is that people think life or hope is elsewhere.
LC This past summer, a white man in California broke into the house of a Japanese American family hunting down and killing almost the entire family before he killed himself. His half-brother went on the air, saying it was because he was sick of the Japanese coming over here and taking jobs away from Americans. You know, life elsewhere looks very attractive at the moment. But at the end of Masala, Krishna gets killed and nothing has changed.
SK Something has changed, the guy’s got a stamp museum. (laughter) He’s got a home. You may think that this is really awful or cynical, that there’s no redeeming human value to all this. Well, if you’re such a liberal don’t watch my fucking films. If you’re so concerned with nostalgia, go back in time. I tried to keep that whole event un-tragic, so non-pathetic that his death for me is an irreducible event. What I’m trying to say in this film is that we all live a life of solitude. We are born in solitude and we die in solitude. I’ll accept as a truth, that even truth is fiction. I don’t remember my birth and I don’t know what happens when I die, but I accept that as a way that I can start living, that I can be useful. Look, I’m trying to tell the story that this is the kind of life that we lead, there are events that are irreducible.
LC What do you mean “irreducible?”
SK That plane blew up! I couldn’t reduce it to any kind of event There’s no story that says the Palestinians got the plane, or that they made the bomb and then put it in the hold and it was supposed to blow up when the people were off the plane, but by some irony of fate it blew up over the sea and all the people died. We don’t know the story. It can’t reduce to an event or a story. It’s a chaotic event because it doesn’t have any logic. Our lives are so chaotic right now, our stories are so dispersed, but nevertheless, we still need to make stories out of these events. Like any event, people want meaning out of it. It’s really necessary to tell stories when you live in solitude because that’s how you communicate. Some have read my character, Krishna, as a Christ-like figure who died in sacrifice. If that’s what it means to people, that’s what it means to people. That wasn’t my intention. There’re too many reasons why he died. The point is to establish that. Other people say, “Oh, he died in the battle against racism.” He didn’t! It doesn’t follow through.
LC How did you write him?
SK Look, I just wrote the guy as the most problematic character that you can imagine. The anti-hero is so familiar, this rebel-without-a-cause James Dean character. You get an Indian living in North America, who’s grown up on these anti-hero types, you put him in a leather jacket, you get someone else asking, “What do you call a Paki in a leather jacket?” You’re full of shit, he doesn’t exist. “You can’t use that jacket, it’s not your property. It’s our property. You stole that iconography, that’s my iconography.” Anyway, why does Krishna die? He had no choice. It’s basically the same anywhere. I can’t say, if I go back to India, it won’t be like that there, too. It’s not going to go away, there’s no other frontier.
When you make a film, you realize that you have a really heterogeneous audience watching it from a multiplicity of positions. Being an experimental filmmaker you create a much more open text. Your intentions aren’t entirely inscribed within the text. I mean, there’s no doubt about what is being done and said in a Hollywood picture. That’s why people go to see it People watch from different positions, but they’re all watching the same film. With a film like Masala, people are watching from different positions, but they’re not all watching the same thing. In this country, the multiplicity of reactions that I’ve had tells me that we don’t really know how to talk about things in a way in which we can all understand each other. That too is a condition of our multicultural universe.
LC Are you identifying Masala as an experimental narrative?
SK It is entirely, in it’s premise. It seems to be really necessary to tell it this way, because it replicates, in its narrative structure, the sense of life that we have in cities like New York. That’s not to say it’s in any way alienating. Its experimentation is in trying to tell stories faithfully. As a result, I’ve heard a critique that sometimes reaches shrill proportions about the treatment of the characters. Some people think that it’s stereotypical, although I don’t know why people resent it other than the fact it’s the first time people have seen themselves and they don’t like seeing themselves. But I think it will be more apparent if you talk about the women in the film. There’s this really blatant nudity of the female body in my film.
LC Like the scene where Krishna’s cousin, Anil Solanki, is fantasizing about his arranged marriage to Saraswati?
SK That scene is a man’s fantasy. What I was trying to lay out was, how an Indian man who has grown up in North America would see an Indian woman. First of all, I don’t think that he would necessarily find her attractive. Anil says that he’s quite happy to masturbate to white women on the television doing aerobics. When he meets this Indian woman, how does she become desirable to him? He frames her as Playboy would have done, had they gone to India and made a pictorial. All those who derive pleasure from this must realize that it’s this character’s fantasy, and they have identified with a creep. We live in a very literal world. People see film and television as reality, especially in this country. I don’t think people could tell the difference between Dan Quayle, then Vice-President, talking about Murphy Brown and Dan Quayle on television in a discourse with the press.
LC Many of the Canadian reviews identify Masala as a “Postmodern” film.
SK It’s become something of an aggravation. I never had the privilege of being the Cartesian subject. I don’t come from any state of Modernism. That doubt, and the loss of any foundation for art is not mine. Those traumas are not mine. Postmodernism for me is so much European art and some American art after World War II. “Look what we’ve done with our fucking modernism: World Wars, ecological disasters, Cold War.” Having power, you have radical doubt—and it’s about time. Postmodernist films have this sort of nostalgia. My film is full of history, really recent history, but there is no nostalgia. In Masala, Lord Krishna is on television, but there is nothing surrealistic about it. This is shit that happens and people relate to it. I saw people in Toronto, New York, New Jersey watching the Ramayana on their TVs. That is what I referred to in making Masala. The argument, I guess, is that no matter what I say, it’s all just part of a discourse anyway. Just another rhetorical trope. I’m not Dan Quayle talking to Murphy Brown. I’m talking to people who are reading this.
Lawrence Chua is a writer and radio producer. He is the managing editor of BOMB and a contributor to Crossroads, a weekly newsmagazine on National Public Radio.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.