What constitutes postcolonial cinema? To qualify as such, does a film have to explicitly explore themes related directly to colonial and postcolonial relations between two countries and/or cultures? Does it have to be produced in a newly postcolonial society? Or can a film be postcolonial when it addresses certain social issues in a modern country that ceased to be a colony decades, maybe even centuries ago, but the issues in question have been enabled, in a sense, or solidified, at any rate, by centuries-old colonial practices? A 2009 Chilean film by Sebastian Silva, The Maid (La Nana), raised this question for me most recently.
The Maid opens with Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), in a maid’s uniform, sitting all by herself in the kitchen of a large bungalow. She is fidgety. She has her food before her, but doesn’t look like she wants to eat. In the adjoining room – the family’s dining room, a visibly upper-middle class family of four – father, mother, daughter and son – are arranging candles on a cake. The mother and son are excited, the father impatient, and the daughter is just bored. We learn that it is Raquel’s birthday, and the family wants to celebrate it with her with a cake and presents. The boy, Raquel’s “favourite,” is sent into the kitchen to fetch her. Raquel resists him, says she doesn’t want to go into the family dining room, but he takes her anyway. She is embarrassed, but is also smiling. She sits at the table along with the family, cuts the cake, and receives her presents. There is some talk about how she has been with them for about twenty years, since the daughter was born. After dinner, the mother, Pilar (Claudia Celedon) decides to do the dishes, while chatting with Raquel. About fifteen minutes into the film, the one thing we understand is that this film is not a moralistic tale about how the insensitive upper class exploits the lower class. The maid, here, is very much a part of the family.
But then again, she is not. Even as Pilar does the dishes with her, we know that it is only as a part of Raquel’s birthday celebrations. She receives presents from the family, has a room and bathroom all to herself, and gets Fridays off to go out and do whatever she wants to do. But she also eats by herself, wears her uniform all day long, and does not have a life beyond the bungalow. Raquel has a perfectly comfortable life, except that it isn’t entirely her own. The brilliance of the film lies in the portrayal of this duality. Silva uses both humour and tragedy poignantly to help us navigate through Raquel’s distressed emotional and physical state. Her rejection of the sweater Pilar buys her for her birthday, in favour of a far more expensive one exactly like Pilar’s, her resentment over how Pilar’s daughter has outgrown her, and her tendency to lock the other maids out of the bungalow, are all reflections of her confusing insider/outsider status. Pilar’s bungalow is Raquel’ home, Pilar’s family is Raquel’s family. Pilar’s home is Raquel’s turf, and she is not about to share it with any other maid. But Pilar’s children, in spite of their kindness, do not treat her like they do Pilar. Even the friendship between Pilar and Raquel is one for which Raquel must ultimately be beholden, for it is not a friendship born of equality, but of Pilar’s kindness and magnanimity. Pilar is white, and blonde, and a college professor. Raquel is not Pilar, and will never be.
Beyond the brilliance of the film, however, lies the question of whether The Maid can be discussed as postcolonial cinema. Most directly, it is a film about how Chilean society is neatly stratified in terms of class. Indeed, as the Gini index points out, Chile has a very unequal distribution of income. The issues in the film were particularly close to home for me, as I grew up in India, where class stratification is comparable to that in Chile, and having full time maids in upper-middle class families is perhaps just as common. Indeed, I have lost track of how many times I have heard an aunt or uncle talk about their own benevolence, and how they treat their domestic help “just like family.” But can class stratification in a postcolonial society be discussed as an isolated issue? Doesn’t class, given Chile’s colonial history, have everything to do with colonialism? Indeed, if the film may be thought of as a representative microcosm of society – which is really how I think of most social issue cinema – The Maid paints a very accurate picture of the mechanism behind class. Most obviously, the upper class elite, Pilar and her family, are of white, European descent. Raquel, on the other hand, is Mestizo. These racial/ethnic divisions that correspond with economic and social stratification, are direct remnants of colonialism.
Thinking about The Maid as postcolonial cinema made me wonder about the spate of social issue films in India, starting in the 1950s, and continuing into the 1980s. It would be a useless exercise to try and compare the cinema, the society, or the colonial history of Chile and India, of course. Chile attained independence from Spain more than a hundred years before India won independence from Britain. The nature of pre-colonial society in Chile was completely different from the nature of precolonial society in India, and the same can be said about the colonial periods in both countries. However, British colonialism in India did its bit in solidifying the class structures across the Indian subcontinent. By making all their deals with the land owning class in India, the British solidified already extant class structures in India. Over time, this translated into differences in education, employment and cultural pursuits, differences that still exist in India today. Indian films about class, therefore, while not directly about colonialism, address issues connected to colonialism.
The Maid is a postcolonial film. It is important to expand our understanding of what constitutes postcolonial cinema, because many modern, postcolonial societies are still grappling with issues that have a lot to do with colonial history, even if it does not seem that way at first glance. And if we are to thoroughly understand these issues, we need to begin with their history.