As I watched Taala Te Kunjee (Lock and Key), filmmaker Shilpi Gulati’s 2017 feature-length documentary film, I kept returning to the story and the laughing face of 57-year-old Jasbir Singh. Every time I’d hear his voice, I’d think of every quintessentially Punjabi uncle I’ve ever met who has put me at ease with his incessant jokes and booming laughter. But while Jasbir Singh is certainly somebody’s Punjabi uncle, that’s not his context in the film. He’s a former addict with 13 years of multiple drug abuse behind him.
The film opens with a montage of shots of Singh watering his plants and doing yoga. The first time you hear his voice is when he jokingly asks if it seems like he’s drunk after his morning routine, because that’s how it makes him feel.
Singh, to me, is a revelation because he does not fit the stereotype of the Punjabi drug abusing man that has come to occupy a certain space in our collective thought processes. News reports of the drug trade stemming from Pakistan, Punjab’s young boys who have turned addicts, and Udta Punjab’s overtly masculine drug-abusing rock-star played by Shahid Kapoor has all added to the idea of either a very rich or very poor, uneducated young man with little thought of the consequences of his actions willingly diving into the world of drugs and refusing to listen to reason when confronted. But Singh is none of these. In fact, none of the five men who feature in Gulati’s film fit that stereotype.
While the film focuses on the struggles of those involved in bringing an addict back on the straight and narrow path, the one thing that seems to shine through is the fact that none of these men and women are particularly different from your or me or our families. One wrong step, and their stories could be anyone else’s. The biggest takeaway from Taala Te Kunjee is the breakdown of stigma and the idea that the drug addict is always an ‘other’, like Udta Punjab’s Tommy Singh: someone we could never be.
“In August 2015, I was invited by Hermitage rehab home to collaborate on a film project. The protagonists of the film are counselors at the rehab and that is how I got access to their stories. Before this, I had never imagined that I’d make a film on drug addiction in Punjab,” says Gulati.
But what pushed Gulati to make a film about rehabilitation rather than the life of an addict or the process of becoming one? What led her to take a path different from the news reports about drugs in Punjab?
“It was a dilemma for us when we started researching for the film,” says Shilpi Gulati, “we were not sure how to talk about recovery without laying out the political and social background of addiction in Punjab. When Udta Punjab came out, half way through our shoot in 2016, we felt relieved. By letting mainstream audiences know about the epidemic of drugs in Punjab, it had done the homework for us. In that way, we felt comfortable focusing on the philosophy of recovery. In some ways, our film begins where Udta Punjab ends.”
Taala Te Kunjee is an interesting portrayal of the process of recovery through the lives and stories of five men who are not only at varying stages in their own lives (the youngest is in his early 30s and the oldest in his 60s), but also at different stages of recovery. There is a sense of positivity to their stories and they clearly inspire hope for the families of addicts present at the Hermitage Rehab Home, where the documentary was shot.
The film moves easily between different spaces. From a cricket game at the rehab centre, the film takes the viewer to a bare brick room in the middle of a field where 31-year-old GPS says he would shoot heroin. The pot of water he would use for his hits is still there. From a shockingly straight forward story of how he once hit his sister because she tried to stop him from leaving the house to go do drugs, we move to his present life: One where he’s a month away from getting married to a woman who he’s clearly in love with and who loves him without judgement for his addict past. Intercut through all this are shots of these men with their supportive families and dancing and singing children as well as their involvement with the rehab centre where they return frequently to offer support and help others who are in the midst of their recovery struggles.
But as one watches more, a question begins to form: Where are the women? Throughout the film, as the men talk about how they struggled against knowing that they were destroying their own lives as well as their families and how they couldn’t stop themselves from finding their next hit despite this knowledge, one wonders where the women addicts are. The only role in which women seemed present were as wives and support systems.
Gulati says, “All through the process of filming, we wondered about representation of female addicts. We did meet with many families who were going through a women-integrated treatment at the Hermitage, however for ethical reasons we could not include them in the film.”
“But the sad truth,” she adds, “is that of the stigma attached to addiction. It’s is a lot easier for families to send their sons or husbands to a rehab than to send their daughters.”
As I fidgeted through the movie, looking for the women, I soon realised that their presence, even in the role of support systems to the men, told significant stories in themselves. In one scene, Satpal Kaur, the 61-year-old wife of Tejinder Walia, a former addict with 27 years of alcohol abuse behind him, is flipping through an old photo album of her wedding. And as she does this, she’s reminiscing about how she didn’t know what was in store for her when she got married. She then shrugs and says, “Now, he’s the hero.”
That one scene cuts through the film’s otherwise positive, happy narrative and suddenly shines a light on the abuse and hardships that these women suffered.
“For me, it was an important moment in our experience of making the film,” says Gulati. “Till then, we were looking at the lives of the recovering addicts assuming their families were happier now. It was perhaps a very black and white way of looking at things. We had finished almost 75 percent of the shoot when Satpal aunty said this. Was it anger, resentment, forgiveness or love? Just one moment completely turned the film for us. After that we went back and re-looked at what all the wives had shared with us.”
That one scene suddenly throws in stark relief for the fact that these women could have never been simply spectators to the struggle; in fact, many of these men may never have successfully been rehabilitated if not for the women in their lives.
“Some audiences have felt that she [Satpal Kaur] was perhaps making a comment on us — the filmmakers. As if she was asking, “who is the ‘real’ hero after all?” adds Gulati.
From that moment on, the experiences of the women in the process of recovery begin to be explored. From the 28-year-old partner of GPS, a young man in his early thirties, to 61-year-old Satpal Kaur who openly says she would have left her husband if she had any idea what she would have done alone with her three daughters, the strength and compulsions of the women involved suddenly shines through.
“For a long time, my ideas of feminism did not have the vocabulary to understand women who, for whatever reasons, chose to stay within abusive relationships. I was perhaps a little judgmental as well. This film made me see the spirit of the women who can laugh while sharing stories of struggle. It made me realise that it is because of them that their husbands are alive today and leading better lives. In that way, these are ordinary women with extraordinary courage. For me, more than the recovering addicts, Taala Te Kunjee is about the wives.”
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