A small white pile of foam glistens in the sun. Moments later it evaporates, its wetness seeped into the earth. By small I mean that, if it weren’t so toxic, you could hold it in your hand – the wide peaks and folds that in previous shots floated and billowed across the screen, reduced here to a glistening handful. Then it disappears from sight. When does pollution become an abstraction – when it seeps? When it evaporates? Sindhu Thirumalaisamy’s film Kere mattu Kere (The Lake and The Lake) (2019) suggests that environmental crisis is as banal as it is spectacular.
The Lake and The Lake, which had its festival premiere at the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM) in late 2019, and will soon screen at the Ann Arbor Film Festival (March 25, 2020), navigates the peripheries of Bellandur Lake, Bangalore: areas of new wealth and poverty, towering apartment complexes and sprawling encampments. A neighborhood flanked by some of the biggest tech parks and highest tax-paying brackets within the city known as “India’s Silicon Valley,” sits alongside poor settlements of migrants from Northeast India and Bangladesh. Thirumalaisamy’s camera moves between these areas, charting the lake as a multivalent territory.
The film stages a series of resemblances, following a logic of associational looking. The toxic foam engulfing Bangalore’s keres (Kannada for “built lakes”) visually resembles the nontoxic froth produced by soap and water at a popular foam party, where partygoers swim and dance among the suds. Colored lights pulse to EDM, casting the friendly foam in greens, reds, and blues. The saturated shades of a devotional statue resemble a patch of flowers, and a pile of trash. In daily life, something can be natural and unnatural at the same time; this distinction often loses meaning. A lake can be toxic, and still provide use value. A lake can be toxic and still produce pleasure – and that does not mean that the pleasure it produces is toxic. To work on crisis, and to work in times of crisis, requires that we embrace this complexity.
Bellandur is the largest of many keres, now among few remaining common spaces in the densely built city. For nearly a decade, Bangalore’s keres have been sites of fires and toxic foam, recently growing so extreme as to sometimes float up to the higher-level terraces from which, on a foam-free evening, a luxury apartment dweller can look out over the water and watch the sunset, as if there weren’t a settlement between them. In Thirumalaisamy’s film, this possibility moves across the smartphone screen of an apartment resident, who diligently swipes through a slideshow of sunsets, each framed from the same balcony where he stands, showing them to us. From here, we can see how easy it would be to frame an image that leaves out the settlement tarps standing between us and the lake.
The foam has been the subject of a citizen-activist call to “clean up” the lakes, as if to return them to a purer, more natural state. Within Bangalore, it has become a symbol for the destruction brought by rapid development. On screen, the foam hovers between symbol and sublime: neither more nor less “natural” or “clean” than the kere from which it comes. The tension between symbol and sublime is a tension the foam holds at the moment we see it seep into the earth: there is no singular moment of abstraction – form moves in and out of recognizability, as thought moves in and out of recognition. Implicit in an activist call to “clean up the lake” or “clean up the city” is a notion of civic responsibility, that it is the city’s responsibility to its people to prevent its lakes from producing toxic foam – or, to manage the foam, since it already exists. Thirumalaisamy’s film shows such questions of responsibility to be less straightforward than they might seem: even if you could “clean up” the lake, the lake is still a backdrop to the stutter between new tech wealth and poverty, the racist, classist, and xenophobic systems of both industry and the state, which find material expression around its edges.
The Lake and The Lake observes the city in a state of sacrifice, resembling transfeminist theorist Sayak Valencia’s description of Tijuana as a “national sacrifice zone.” Valencia draws from Mike Davis, explaining that: “These spaces are treated as … gate-territories and backdoor cities, where the undesirable and the desirable mix, hybridizing these elements …” In such spaces, Valencia explains that image moves between fantasy (horror) and reality, “producing a complete reversal that re-establishes reality as something horrifying and true that increasingly resembles fiction, but differs from fiction in that it is heartbreakingly palpable and irreparable.” Such is the sense of Thirumalaisamy’s framing on the high-rise balcony, from where we see the glamor smartphone sunset framed within a wider, darker view. At another moment, she shows us the steep wall of apartment buildings as seen from a settlement, looming. The horror of disparity now carries new meaning, in the days after Bangalore police demolished many of the homes within the settlements that Thirumalaisamy filmed – following claims by the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (the BBMP) that these settlements and their residents are “illegal.” Evictions that have been ongoing are becoming more drastic, as detention centers proliferate. Filmed between 2017-18, The Lake and The Lake is already a time capsule.
Thirumalaisamy accounts for violence through her framing, building a critique within her layering of sound. Her film works by pulling viewers’ attention between what is and is not within view, as we move through space with her and her camera, a series of lake visits that quickly fall out of linear time. Privileging fragmented off-screen conversations – both human and other-than-human forms of speech – The Lake and The Lake asks that we reconsider hierarchies among voice, image, and environmental sound. We can’t be sure if we’re looking at the same chorus of dogs whose voices we hear, if the child on screen is the child whose laugh we hear. Relying on non-sync field recordings that layer across place and time, and off-screen, incidental dialogue between the filmmaker and her interlocutors, The Lake and The Lake evades expectations of essayistic cinema to elicit an empathic response to someone else’s lived experiences through narration. In Thirumalaisamy’s film, sounds melt into the environment while they build it: Hindu devotional songs in Kannada, operatic chanting in Sanskrit, the sound of waz (an informal Islamic sermon in Bengali), the Indian National Anthem, dogs, road and air traffic, wind, multiple forms of human labor.
The Lake and The Lake poses a critical challenge to middle- and upper-class narratives of environmental crisis, which often fail to recognize that the realities of “crisis” are, for many, part of everyday life. In the case of Bellandur Lake, those narratives are embedded within capitalist mechanisms of overdevelopment and the Hindu fascist state. What is the space between cleaning up and cleansing? Thirumalaisamy’s film does not directly represent either the content or affect of environmental activist discourse. It is not a film that overtly explains or interprets, or provides historical context. Rather, Thirumalaisamy uses observational strategies to reveal a relationship to environment more grounded in daily work than the language of “crisis” tends to capture.
As the sun sets moody purple over the luxury apartment complexes and the settlement below, we hear several people addressing the filmmaker, asking if they will appear in her film, and where they can watch it when it’s done. I do not see the people asking these questions, but the feeling of their asking stays with me – as does Thirumalaisamy’s response: “Maybe you appear in the film, too. I don’t know if you are in it or not.” In her response is a challenge to the capitalist city and its modes of storytelling – whether we are ever entirely part of, or separate from, our environment.
Still frame, The Lake and The Lake (2019), HD video, 38 minutes. Image courtesy of the artist.