When I was recently handed a rare treat in the form of a night to myself, I took the opportunity to see a film that’s been on my radar for a while called The Waiting City.
I was curious to see this film as it deals with overseas adoption, which is a theme in my new novel, The Half-Child (in bookshops from 30 August 2010). It had the added attractions of being an Australian film and set in India, a country I have visited three times in 17 years and would return to again in the blink of an eye.
I knew very little about the film before seeing it, and the first thought that struck me as I left the cinema was that it is an audacious film. It is by no means perfect, but I liked what it tried to do.
Billed as the first Australian feature film to be shot entirely in India, The Waiting Game is set mostly in Kolkata (Calcutta), with a side trip into a rural town that may have been an invention (I couldn’t find it on google maps). The story centres on an Australian couple, Fiona (Radha Mitchell) and Ben (Joel Edgerton), who arrive in Kolkata to adopt an Indian girl, Laksmi, whom they have waited two years to adopt. When administrative processes take longer than anticipated, they are forced to wait — hence the film’s title — and to confront the limitations of their relationship.
The couple is not likeable — she’s a workaholic, he’s a man-child — nor do they seem to like each other much. At one point Fiona explains to their Indian minder Krishna (Samrat Chakrabarti) that there’s no medical reason why she and Ben can’t have a biological child, and I’m thinking maybe they should try having sex.
Despite this, I got caught up in their story. Once they leave the confines of their upmarket hotel to visit the rural orphanage where Laksmi once lived, the film becomes more engaging as it immerses the characters (literally, in one instance) and viewers in India. Out of familiar territory, Fiona and Ben are given the chance to re-examine their choices and what transpires is all the more credible for being understated.
Krishna, their host and cultural interpreter, is given licence to ask difficult questions about how Fiona can replace ‘Mother India’ as a mother for Laksmi. This is one of several scenes in which local people express their discomfort about overseas adoption. When Fiona and Ben finally make it to the Missionaries of Charity orphanage where Laksmi lives, they find their adoptive daughter unwell. As their anxiety mounts, Sister Tessila (Tilotamma Shome) tells them she has cared for Laksmi since she was a baby and ‘she’s my child, too.’
Writer/director Claire McCarthy’s time volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata informed both her documentary film Sisters in Calcutta and The Waiting City. I liked her depiction of the Sisters, who can sometimes be portrayed as saints. And although I wondered how a child as unwell as Laksmi could have made it on to the Australian government’s short-list for adoption given the stringent health requirements for immigration, McCarthy’s observations of couples coming from overseas to adopt children in the Sisters’ care clearly informed the script and characterisations.
The film used a largely Indian crew and I watched a commentary where the lead actors marvelled at how much was done manually. For example, in circumstances where a light would be on a stand in Australia, it was held up by a person in India. This is consistent with my experience of how things work in India. Systems run not to be ‘efficient’ so much as to keep large numbers of people employed. This labour-intensive workforce produces a bureaucratic sluggishness, which is what forces Fiona and Ben to wait once they reach Kolkata.
Judging by the on-line reviews, people seem to either love or hate this film. Some complained that it is cliched to depict Western ‘outsiders’ gaining self-awareness through Indian mysticism. But I thought what what forced Fiona and Ben to stop and reflect on their lives was being out of their comfort zone. Fiona’s turning-point came less from her interactions with India mystics than from having Ben throw her computer out of their hotel room window. (I thought she should’ve thrown Ben’s guitar out after it).
My major problem with this film was how difficult I found it to sympathise with the main characters. But there is more than enough in the film for me to recommend it, not least of all for its provocative plot, rich settings and an ending that avoids sentimentality.
Afterward: It seems appropriate to post a review for a film called The Waiting City on a day when the results of the 2010 Australian Federal election are still too close to call. I happen to believe a hung parliament — one in which either of the major parties have to negotiate with Independent and the first Greens candidate elected to the House of Representatives — will be good for us, representing new possibilities for accountability and change. But I guess we’ll have to wait and see.