By Susan JAMES
With her new work, “My Name Is Salt,” Indian filmmaker Farida Pacha used the documentary format to create a masterwork of minimalist storytelling. Thought provoking and visually stunning, with cinematography by Lutz Konermann, this official selection of the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival reaches beyond its sumptuous images to mine the meaning behind one family’s generational labors in the salt deserts of India’s far west.
For four months of the year, during the monsoons, the Little Rann of Kutch in the Indian province of Gujarat becomes a shallow saltwater sea, home to tiny fish and shrimp fishermen. But Rann means waste or desert in Hindi and for the other eight months of the year that’s what the Rann becomes. The sea disappears leaving a bleak desert behind. In this flat, unforgiving landscape thousands of poor Indians who travel here during the dry months earn their living by leaching salt from the surrounding flats. Families who have done this work for generations arrive like gypsies on overburdened trucks, setting up encampments and pumping up ground water to create shallow salt pans used to produce the pure white crystals more valuable than diamonds. Man can live without crystallized carbon; he can’t live without salt.
The film focuses on one family: Chhanabhai, his wife Devuben, and their five children. Chhanabhai is a chain-smoker, a tireless worker and a worrier. All tanned skin and sinewy limbs, he worries about the quality of his salt, the low price the salt trader is offering, how his family will survive the next year. His wife is the family’s anchor, stoic and dedicated. Her nightly routine of cooking flatbread on a hot stone over an open fire has an almost ritualistic quality to it. Together Chhanabhai and Devuben form a partnership that keeps the family afloat on a sea of salt.
The film lovingly and thoroughly connects the laborious stages of salt-making. When the family arrives at the flats, they find a ghost desert shimmering in a heat haze, punctuated by flights of birds, hoards of insects and an abandoned fleet of small wooden skiffs. Buried deep beneath the mud are the family’s tools and the crude generator that runs the pump on which everything depends. Like an archaeological excavation, the family digs deep to reclaim their buried treasures, cleans them and rigs the pump to pull out the ground water into their carefully constructed salt pans. The work is time-consuming and back-breaking. Chhanabhai’s own back is crooked from the labor and his arthritic fingers require a rough massage to stay functional.
All of the family helps out, girls and boys. But despite the heavy labor, this is not a depressing film. The younger children play with toys they create themselves. They go to a temporary school and do their homework in the temporary homes their parents have created. On one special day, everyone puts on their best clothes and goes to a local fair. There are small rides for the children, a jewelry wallah for the ladies and speculation about salt prices for the men. The message to an overindulged, over consumerized Western world is that happiness is not dependent on iPhones and iPads. Small moments of joy, a daughter braiding her mother’s hair, a brother and sister playing shop, a boy listening to Bollywood songs on an antique radio, light up the days of back-breaking work. Pacha’s film is a labor of love about the rough beauty that surrounds ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary things to survive.
See you at the movies!