Thursday, June 30, 2011


THERE IS SOMETHING IN THE AIR is a short film about many things – about longing and transgression, and fairies and djinns, to list a few. The mode of investigation is personal, and expression is non-ethnographic. The film blends documentary and fiction tropes to weave a narrative that is based on ‘hearsay’. There are no experts here, and no eyewitnesses. The narrators could also be unreliable.

The film begins with a psychiatric clinic, but the drama largely takes place in dream-scapes, and at a medieval Sufi shrine in Badayun (Uttar Pradesh, north India). It brings together accounts of women who claim to be ‘afflicted’ by something in the air – be it a spirit, demon, ghost, or djinn. In popular parlance, the condition is termed ‘hawai marz’ or ‘affliction of air’, while ‘hawa lag jana’ implies ‘a vagrant influence’… the documentary lies at the confluence of such influences and strange afflictions of air.

There Is Something In The Air, while being a film about women, who claim to be spiritually possessed, who would possibly be clinically mentally ill, is not a description of ‘insanity’… in fact it is a film that aims to make one think of the ‘possibilities’ of insanity… what does insanity allow?

The documentary escapes the biographical; it stars Muslim women, without labeling them so. It brings together accounts of insane, lunatic, mad, unapologetic women – who perhaps have ‘chosen’ to be so. Insanity can be acquired. One only needs to long enough… Longing for something, someplace that is evasive. The film is about women who want to bridge the distance between what is lived and what is desired, between what is experienced and what is longed for. The film searches for a language of this ‘longing’.

The shrine assumes the role of a hospital and a court of law. ‘Patient – petitioners’ come from all over the country and each ‘case’ is heard in the dead Saint’s ‘Court’ – twice a day. Sometimes it takes years before a patient is healed – if at all. The process begins with patients writing a ‘petition’ with the help of care-takers of the shrine, and putting in an ‘appearance’ before the Saint. The ‘patient – petitioners’ live in and around the shrine, making ‘appearances’ in the Court of the Saint everyday. They don’t need lawyers, witnesses or a body of proof. The truth claim of their speech-act under possession is unquestioned.

The film should not be read as a documentation of processes of alternate healing at a non- Wahabi, Sufi shrine in South Asia because there are no ‘native informants’ here. The film does not provide direct answers, illustrations, or explanations. It functions in the realm of fantasy, and poses questions to the ‘real’. This documentary is not a mere illustration of a cause-effect relationship between the pedagogic project of religion and the freedoms of transgressions through insanity. It looks at the ‘state of madness’ through other prisms besides those of health, women’s rights, affirmative action etc. It takes into account love, longing, desire, agency, and negotiation.


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