Soul Beyond the Skin
For three years, documentary filmmaker Julie Mallozzi ’92 had learned of every fateful turn in Lalita Bharvani’s life—her affliction with vitiligo, an autoimmune condition that blotched her dark skin with white; her battle with ovarian cancer; and, out of nowhere, heart failure. But now, for the first time, Mallozzi wanted to turn off the camera.
Bharvani lay motionless a few feet away from her on a hospital table, surgeons readying to cut into her chest for open-heart surgery. “She’s lying there with only 40 percent of her blood in her body and the other 60 percent is in this machine, so you see this large quantity of blood,” Mallozzi recalls. “It was just the reddest red I have ever seen in my life.” But Mallozzi did not turn off her camera, recalling something her subject had once told her: “When I asked her why she would let herself be filmed in all these intimate moments, she said that she was very unselfconscious—she has come to a place where she has realized her body is not really who she is.” Says Mallozzi, “I think she’s a beautiful woman, but she no longer stakes her identity in her body.”
Indelible Lalita tells the story of Bharvani, an Indian woman who began to lose her skin pigment as an adolescent and then migrated from India to Paris and eventually Montreal. Now 60, with completely white skin, she copes with her own identity transformation as she battles a host of serious medical ailments, finding strength in her strong marriage and her Hindu faith. The film will be shown on the Public Broadcasting Service World television channel in May.
To tell this story of resilience in the face of bodily hardship, Mallozzi—a Boston-based filmmaker—traveled every few months to Bharvani’s home in Canada to film, and also followed her to India and France, where the two women traced her roots. As Bharvani became sick and faced countless medical tests and procedures, Mallozzi was alongside her, filming every detail.
Mallozzi—who heard about Bharvani by chance: a friend happened to be her niece—initially thought the documentary would focus on how vitiligo affected her protagonist’s cultural identity. “Within a year and a half of my arrival in Canada, I had become totally white,” Bharvani tells the camera. “I think I was in a state of bewilderment or loss. Because of my skin condition I’m not automatically accepted in any races or cultures.”
But after getting to know her, Mallozzi realized that her subject had in many ways triumphed over the loss of her natural complexion. Her other battles in life, as well as her spiritual outlook, made a much more compelling story. “I realized that it was not about this singular loss of skin pigment, but more about the body as an archive of our experiences,” says the filmmaker. “Before, I was not at all interested in a spiritual story—I’m not a religious person, and that wasn’t a topic I was looking to cover. One of the main things I have started thinking about more is the idea of your spirit, and what it is. If you’re not adhering to a specific dogma, can you still feel like you have a spirit? And how does that relate to your body? I hope that the film makes people think about those things.”
In one scene, Bharvani recalls the pain of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 30 and realizing she would never be able to have children of her own: “I felt as if I had lost my womanhood to a certain extent,” she tells the camera. “You felt as if you were melting into this other identity and you didn’t know what this identity was.”
Artistically, Mallozzi says, the new film is very different from her other documentary work, in the way it makes use of different types of footage and of intense close-ups. The filmmaker intercuts certain scenes of her subject at home, tending to her garden or doing yoga, with startling images of x-rays and medical tests. Much of the content alternates between ideas and images, rather than following a conventional story line.
Mallozzi, whose work focuses mainly on themes of historical memory and cultural identity, has also produced, directed, written, and filmed Once Removed, the story of meeting her mother’s family in China and learning about their involvement in that country’s complicated political history, and Monkey Dance, which reveals how three Cambodian-American teens in Lowell, Massachusetts, navigate a difficult adolescence and unite through traditional Cambodian dance. A visual and environmental studies concentrator, she studied with Arnheim lecturer on filmmaking Rob Moss and subsequently taught in the department for 13 years.
A major reward of making Indelible Lalita, she says, was getting to know someone she now considers “like an auntie and a mentor.” The women are 20 years apart in age, but Mallozzi—who is half Chinese and half Italian—says they share a blended background and a combination of Eastern and Western philosophies on life. Bharvani, she explains, “has a very interesting combination of this carpe diem Western mentality—like, you have to ‘go for it’ and take good care of your body and do everything you can to be healthy and follow your dreams—and, on the other hand, this kind of Eastern acceptance of everything, like the cycles of life, reincarnation, and understanding of your small place in a larger world.”
View a clip from the film: