Monday, January 20, 2014

When Death Comes to Goa: A review of The Coffin Maker

The sad truth about The Coffin Maker (not yet released) is that it is a very bad re-articulation of the Hollywood film Meet Joe Black (1998). Set within the context of the lifestyles of New York’s corporate elites, the latter film focussed on exploring the idea of Death taking on a human form to experience the variety of human emotions, crafting a complex story involving multiple characters. In contrast, The Coffin Maker attempts to set this exploration within a Goan context. The result is a narrative about the interaction of Anton Gomes, the eponymous coffin maker, with Death in the weeks prior to the former’s death. The film vaguely attempts to deal with the complexities of human emotions, but effectively restricts itself to love. Failing dramatically in this attempt, the film constantly lapses into pop-philosophy, among other things, comparing love to warm buttered bread, and boyhood lust. In short, if Meet Joe Black was somewhat limited as a film, The Coffin Maker is an unmitigated disaster, whose errors are compounded by the fact that it also sets the story within the shell of an ethnographic description of Goan society that it dramatically misunderstands and misrepresents.

Born in the context of Goan experiences with democracy in the late 1800s, a much-bandied Goan idiom suggests that when there are two Goans in a room, one can expect three opinions. One opinion that all Goans nevertheless share is that they are tired of the manner in which they and their state have been represented by the Indian media. Featured in this year’s edition of the Goa-based International Film Festival of India (IFFI), The Coffin Maker gained some attention in the local press by being represented as the first Indian film to have gotten Goa right. Hence the large turnout of locals at the special screening of the film the day after the conclusion of the festival. While, true to form, local opinion may have been divided at the end of the film, there were nonetheless many who were visibly and vocally upset at one more film getting Goa and Goans so dramatically and offensively wrong.

The film commences with the standard trope of the drunk Goan Catholic. In this film that character is Alloue, the grave-digger of the village where The Coffin Maker is set, who remains drunk through the film. Like many Indian film productions, this one too perpetuates the long standing trope of using drunken Christians to provide comic relief while not contextualising them, or their alcoholism. However, Alloue is not the only alcoholic in the film, given that the coffin-maker Anton Gomes, played by Naseeruddin Shah, similarly seems to have a troubled relationship with alcohol. The film portrays Gomes taking swigs of a potent liquor, perhaps feni, straight from the bottle that he carries to work in his bag of tools. To compound the image of Goa being a land of drunks, the film contains another gratuitous scene where Anton is seen dining with his wife where they imbibe enough alcohol to dance drunkenly in the streets of Panjim. That one does not see Goans consuming alcohol anywhere else in the entire film only goes to reinforce the suggestion that when Goans drink alcohol, they drink to get drunk.

The use of this trope could have possibly been forgiven were it not for two facts. First, this film suggests that it is representing the ‘real’ Goa. Secondly, this film compounds the problems of stereotyping Goans by adding to the cache of usual stereotypes. Given the manner in which the film has clearly sought to highlight what it considers ‘traditional’ and ‘authentic’ Goan life, and focuses on one individual and his story, this film is clearly not attempting to be a regular Bollywood masala flick. In not doing so, it seems to tread into the realm of the ethnographic documentary. However, this effort is so marked by bad research that the faux authenticity worsens matters by convincing non-Goan audiences that this is the ‘real Goa’. Thus, for example, in its ill-researched enthusiasm to reproduce Goan village life, the film has almost every local use the Konkani variants for mother****er and other allied cuss words with alarming frequency. While it is not being suggested that Goans do not swear, the profusion of swearing was so bad, and so out-of-the ordinary, I began to cringe chronically after a certain point in time.

While billed as a bilingual film in Konkani and English, there is in fact very little Konkani in the film beyond the mispronounced Konkani cuss words. The English that the film has the Goans speak is in fact an extremely bad representation of the Bombay-English that developed in colonial Bombay. This form of English was popular among various kinds of residents of colonial Bombay, like the East Indians, Goan Catholics and Parsis, and was present in Goa only as a minority language form of Bombay-returned Goans. There are a variety of Konkani-English language forms present in Goa, but the fact is that none of these were represented in the film. This film is in fact multi-lingual given that, thanks to the shoddy execution, the actors often fall back on North Indian exclamations, expletives (madarch**d, behench**d), and Hindi as well. The film is also marked by its use of Portuguese, which keeping in form with the way in which other languages are used, is mispronounced, and appears in unlikely social locations. Looking at this liberal use of language, one could well say that this film is been marked by the aesthetic use of language. Language is used not necessarily to convey the dialogues between characters, but merely to effect aesthetic flourishes to give the audience an ‘authentic’ experience of what Goa is allegedly like.

It is in the overwhelming presence of such flourishes that The Coffin Maker reveals itself not merely as a badly-researched film, but one more addition to the orientalist representation of Goa, Goans and in particular Goan Catholics. As is well known, in his book titled Orientalism the celebrated scholar Edward Said argued that European powers represented the Middle East as "almost a European invention ... a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences".  The success of Orientalism as an explanatory concept lies in the fact that it can be used to demonstrate the manner in which hegemonic, or colonial powers, similarly represent cultures and peoples that are either colonized or incapable of representing themselves. Just as the Middle East or South Asia was represented by the European colonial powers as places of mystery, romance, and landscapes, so too are Goa and Goans by the Indian media. This media produces Goa not as it exists, but as a space for Indians to lose themselves in European exotica. Thus, even though Portuguese was always a minority language, and has practically died out as a publicly spoken tongue, the film forces it into the mouth of a street-food vendor. Similarly, even though all statues of Portuguese heroes were torn down from public spaces subsequent to Goa’s integration into India, and Vasco da Gama is hardly a daily reference even to those steeped in Goa’s Portuguese past, the film still insists on inserting references to the non-existent statues of Vasco-da-Gama into the dialogue between characters.

Displaying the standard orientalist disregard for exactitude in relation to social reality, the film joyfully plays with the social structure among Goan Catholics, marrying the daughter of a doctor to a carpenter’s son. Seeking to exemplify the imaginary essence of Goa, the film pulls out features that an Indian audience or a visiting Indian to the territory is likely to identify as key features of the state. Thus, this bizarrely mismatched couple is made to reside in a home that is popularly misrepresented as a Portuguese home and is in fact typical to Goa’s upper-caste elites and colonial middle-class. That the internal arrangement of the home bears no resemblance to how such homes were, and continue to be, used is another feature that the film seems blissfully unaware of. What the film definitely was aware of, and sought to draw the audience’s attention to, was the existence of caste among the Catholics in Goa. More sensitive members of the audience could perhaps see the shame of caste as responsible for Anton not wanting his son to also become a coffin maker. Nevertheless, even this possible reference to caste was unfortunately left at the level of a flourish, since when Anton goes on to command his son to become anything else, he inexplicably references only other ‘lower’-caste and ‘lower-status’ jobs like those of a tailor and a carpenter, even though Anton’s son is a college-going student. The references to caste, therefore, once again works to cast the Catholics in Goa as weird aberrations who are neither properly Hindu, nor properly Catholic; cultural bastards, or accidents of history.

The most damning way in which this film demonstrates its orientalising tendencies is how, despite locating the story in Goa, there is only one non-Catholic character in the film. This runs against the hard facts of Goan demography and reveals the manner in which the film seeks to create a Goan Neverland for its audiences. This representation of Goa as practically devoid of non-Catholics is both a lie as well as politically irresponsible since Catholics in Goa are not only a mere 26 odd and reducing percent of the population, but also a culturally embattled minority. Thus, while their existence is fetishized by films such as The Coffin Maker, their cultural mores are actually under threat. Take, for example, the manner in which the Roman script in which most Catholics write Konkani has, until recently, been denied governmental support; or the manner in which their cultural and literary productions are deemed as lacking standard. A creeping Hinduisation of the state ensures that the dietary preferences of Goan Catholics - pork and beef - are prohibited from state premises, as was the case during the course of the IFFI. More disturbing is the fact that the misrepresentation of Goa as Catholic (and hence Western and European) territory is used as fodder by local Hindu rightists to aggressively assert that the true character of Goa is brahmanical.  The recent statement by Goa’s Chief Minister that Catholics in Goa were in fact culturally Hindu being a case in point.

The Coffin Maker is thus best described as a film that seeks to represent Goa from within Indian perceptions of what Goa ought to be like. Consequently, if there is one relationship that the film manages to capture perfectly, it is the relationship between that of India and Goa. Where every Goan character in the film speaks a vile patois, Death, played by Randeep Hooda, is the only character to speak the English of India’s educated classes. India then intrudes into the orientalist Goan Neverland only in the form of death. This is not an inappropriate cameo in the context where India and its elites, either through state practice or representative norms, seem to wilfully push every minority group within its boundaries to the brink of collective death.

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