Gautaman Bhaskaran
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Copyright 2004




Ken Loach: Life, no bed of roses

KEN LOACH moved out of his native Britain after three decades to make a film in America. But not out of his subject. He has been a friend of the working classes, and his camera has always taken a sympathetic look at their trials and tribulations. Whether it was the 1993 "Raining Stones" or the 1994 "Ladybird, Ladybird" or the 1998 "My Name is Joe", Loach had always been deeply concerned about the man or the woman on the street, out to make a living in unpleasant, even harsh, conditions.

It was, therefore, not quite surprising that Loach ought to have been moved by the pathetic situation that immigrant janitors in the United States found themselves in. They were Davids fighting an unequal battle with the Goliaths of office-block owners.

Loach's latest product, "Bread and Roses", captures the tragedy of these labourers - many of them frightfully poor and without even valid papers - through the eyes and lives of two fiery Mexican sisters. Maya is one of them, who escapes sexual attack and harassment before finding a job along with her older sister in a plush building in downtown Los Angeles.

But things are as bad here, with a boss out to underpay her and others as well as force a fat bribe out of their earnings. It requires an American activist lawyer, Sam, to get the janitors together and help them to demand, "We want Bread, but we also want Roses."

Loach's picture travels through patches of high drama and passion. The confrontation between the sisters is emotionally beautifully. The sparks between Maya and Sam have a ring of honesty about them. And, both the opening shot - when we see illegal would-be immigrants crossing the border - and the finale - where a defeated, though triumphant, Maya has to go back - have the director's master touch. These scenes are arresting; they are clearly etched in my memory.

I am certain that Loach must have been immensely moved by the subject to have managed to get such strong visuals on celluloid. Yet, the whole thing began rather innocuously at a bus stop.

"It was about 2.30 a.m. Suddenly my script writer, Paul Laverty, was surrounded by animated accents from Mexico, the Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Mostly women. He got chatting. They worked as cleaners for bankers, insurance companies, lawyers and Hollywood agents in Los Angeles. They made a strong impression in their uniforms as if descending like some army in the night ... There was something that touched Paul: there was this entire, community challenging corporate power. 'No justice, no peace' was central to their organising drive ..."

Loach says that he was immediately attracted to this. First of all because the events unfolded in America, where he had not worked before. "I thought I should have a go before hanging up the viewfinder. Also, I was fascinated by the fact that such things were happening in Hollywood side by side with shots and takes ..."

He feels that "Bread and Roses" has been able to highlight the great American hypocrisy. "On the one hand, the immigrants are abused, because they are taking their taxes, their hospital beds, they are taking their jobs ... On the other hand, they are very cheap labour. They want them both ways ... This is reality."

Does such real stuff have popular appeal? Loach pauses a bit as if he is trying to get the right words. "I think it plays quite well," he tells me at Cannes where his movie was premiered (May 2000). "The problem is not whether audiences would like it when it is showing, but if it can get into a cinema without huge amounts being spent on publicity."

Apparently, Loach harbours very little illusion about his craft. "Cinema can only have a very limited role. It can never be a political movement. The most a director can do is leave a question in the viewer's mind. Let people tell their stories so that others may feel some solidarity. I hope a picture will provoke a few thoughts. Some may stay with you."

A good part of "Bread and Roses" will.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated October 22 2000)


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