This intimate, poignant, and thought-provoking documentary relates the remarkable story of an Indian woman, Lalita Bharvani, who completely loses her skin pigment as she migrates from Bombay to Montreal. Now 60 and appearing to be White, Lalita copes with her changing identity even as her body is painfully transformed by ovarian cancer, breast cancer, and heart failure. In telling Lalita’s story, the film incisively explores the intersection of racial, national, age, and gender identities in the globalized world.
As a child in Bombay in the 1950s, Lalita began to develop white patches on her leg, caused by a skin condition called vitiligo (made famous by Michael Jackson). Her mother worried that this “defect” would prevent Lalita from ever finding a good husband. Lalita left India to study in Paris. There she fell in love with Pierre, a French-Canadian student, and they married. After their neighbors mistook Lalita for an Arab and mistreated her, Lalita and Pierre decided to leave Paris and move to Montreal.
Despite a happy marriage, Lalita found life in North America lonely. Her solitude manifested itself physically at age 30 when ovarian cancer left her unable to bear children. Meanwhile, the cold air of Montreal accelerated her pigment loss. Within a year of arriving in Canada, she had become totally White.
Now 60, Lalita is fighting breast cancer and heart disease as her mother lives out her last days in India. Through these health crises, Lalita somehow manages to find joy in life. Grounded in her strong marriage and Hindu faith, she refuses to allow her illnesses to dampen her vibrancy. She learns to let go of her body as the expression of her femininity and ethnicity — and, ultimately, as the only vessel for her spirit.
Indelible Lalita poses a variety of intriguing and richly discussible questions: How linked is one’s ethnic and gender identity to one’s physical appearance? Is the body somehow imprinted, like a passport getting stamped, by the place where one lives? Can the body be read as a record of all that has happened to the spirit within?
Poetic, powerful, and absorbing, Indelible Lalita will generate thought and discussion in a wide range of classes in ethnic studies, cultural anthropology, gender studies, comparative religion, medicine, and social work, and will be essential for any class studying the Indian diaspora. It was produced by the noted documentary filmmaker, Julie Mallozzi. The film is in English, French, and Hindi, with English subtitles.