Lockdown musings: Cleo & Me

By Santanu Das

Chandannagar Strand

The lockdown has, in various aspects, limited me to circumscribing through the daily routine, inside my house. It might sound odd but for the last few days, my timetable has been rudimentary and timed, something that has never happened before.

I have returned to my old home at Chandannagar where I hardly stayed as an adult. There are the same old forces at work, ordinary things like burning the incense sticks, drying the towel out, filling the water bottles — not quite voluntary but somewhat of a meditational retreat, almost like a recreational conformity. Amid these circumstances, I re-watched Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2018).

Revolving around an indigenous domestic worker in 1970s Mexico called Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), this film plays out, with novelistic depth, inside the confines of a middle-class family where she serves. Upon revisiting it even now, I did not find myself being attached to Cleo’s domestic work, but ended up feeling part of that parallel universe, so embedded within the domestic borders. I understood how I was substituting myself as a silent member within the house where Cuarón set his wonderful film, in a way that I did not anticipate when I watched it earlier. I realise that this association occurred this time because of my position in this lockdown, at this particular point of time. Roma, then, felt not just a reminder of the cinematic power of connection but also of the universal quality of compassion which is able to erase political and economic concepts of border.

Roma takes place within the household of Cleo’s patron, Sofia (Marina de Tavira). She follows Cleo as she performs her daily chores with an effortless sense of rhythm and precision. She cleans up the yard, picks up the clothing from the bedrooms to do the laundry, and collects the youngest child, Pepe, from the kindergarten. The camera revolves around the breath of the house with abundance of tracking shots that serve to catch Cleo’s movement around the house as she carries out her endless duties whilst the family’s privacy takes place in the background.

There were so many layers to just this single sequence. Like Cleo, I find myself detached from the discourses that form the chaotic energy of my house. Even though my mother knows how much I prefer a sense of privacy, she is unable to ascertain it within the household. Someone or the other is always talking to someone else or to himself only, in a way that the other members of the house stand witness to every single incident. The only difference is that I am a member of my own home, unlike Cleo who is still a mute outsider, a perennial reminder of class divide.

In Roma, the viewer is led to identify with Cleo — since the film allows one just to see and hear what she does — it is in this way that Cleo’s relation with the domestic space and the exclusion that she suffers are experienced by the audience. When Sofía and her husband are arguing, for example, the camera does not enter into the couple’s room. Instead it tracks Cleo’s descent as she makes her way down to the ground floor and then it makes a 360-degree pan to register her last working round of the day. Whereas, it is me in my daily lockdown reality who shuts the door and moves out to a different room. I do not, for once, identify with Cleo’s subjectivity, but do so with her muteness and tightened repetition, finding myself incapable of ignoring the emotional reflexes and patterns of the domestic household.

The microcosm of my quarantined life has achieved a macrocosm– identifying traits in minor variations of routines — even in the clicking of the kitchen door that signifies lunch is almost ready. Within the perimeters of my house confinement, I have found a radical sense of individuality.

It is a realisation that betrays the very essence of togetherness — my silence to the constant bickering between my parents, insensitive political concerns, and negligence to the privacy of an individual within the space of the private. Quarantined with a dysfunctional family has its own set of demands, that aforemost erases the possibility of peaceful negotiation. Memory becomes a weapon, bluntly rummaging through unwanted topics that inadvertently creates a trigger.

Where do I begin with the subtle jabs at the past, the utter substitution of trauma with grief, that erodes any possibility of calm? It is in the simple habits that I find myself traversing the past — unable to discard the remnants in the present disposition. In this way, I remain so absorbed with my own personal inclinations, that it covers up matters of the world outside. In the heavy noise of my everyday existence, the immediate world outside slowly ceases to matter– although the ruptures of public life determine the private life inevitably.

In Roma, Cuaron deftly stitches the personal with the political, the private with the public in the staging of the Corpus Christi massacre that took place in 1971. These riots are portrayed in the narrative of Roma when Cleo and the grandmother Teresa are buying a cot for Cleo’s baby. Cleo’s miscarriage occurs while they are in the store, when some wounded students enter the store to take shelter and the paramilitaries follow them there and threaten the clients (it is actually Fermín — who impregnated Cleo in the past and left her, who now points a gun at Cleo, causing her waters to break). This sets up for the devastating sequence that is to follow in the birth of Cleo’s stillborn child.

The entire sequence is masterfully choreographed in one shot, with the audience beside Cleo on the operation table, as if permitted inside in order to comfort her. I knew what was to come — this being my third watch– and yet I found myself emotionally wrung. It was uncomfortable, and most certainly surprising to feel this deeply empathetic towards Cleo at that moment.

I never had a nanny while growing up, and stayed mostly outdoors, all by myself. Home, as it was, remained an idea, replenished with each hostel room. I never had my father looking after me, just like the patriarch of the household in Roma. I understood the soft power of domestic work, having seen my mother in my own home, and being on the receiving end of their love for years. Now, quarantined inside home, more than ever before.

Furthermore, through Roma, I saw what looked like a man’s attempt at revisiting the past, through a lens of atonement. The film serves for Cuarón a way to process how much his own childhood maid, Libo, might have had to put up with on his behalf, an effort to see the politics and loaded gestures he missed as a young child. This singular take on revisiting the past also resonated with me, of how I am more akin to the shifts in the power structures within my family now.

Today, I am aware of my presence in the room, strong and silent, completely able to exercise my opinion. Cleo is never given that agency to exercise the discourse, and even if she was, that would have never been realistic. Her silence was a necessity, not a choice.

This realisation of my control over the unnoticed, mundane noise of daily existence with such a consumptive focus makes me more anxious with each passing day. The deserted streets which I observe from the verandah of my house are haunting and haunted, a daily reminder of how I wake up to this gradual unfolding of the coronavirus catastrophe. Like Cleo, I face each day with rhythmic deterrence, but unlike her — monitor a new found vision of control. It is weird, this contrasting force of Roma that binds, and somewhat wonderful in the way it still manages to free me from its cinematic constraints. It feels just like a revelation, more certain than anything else at this moment.


Santanu Das is currently pursuing his Masters in English from Jadavpur University, India. He writes for CinemaCatharsis and Highonfilms. He lives in Chandannagar, Hooghly.





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