Luckyby Kavish Chetty / 20.03.2012
So here’s the thing about being “heart-tugging” or “heart-warming”: pull too hard, turn the heat up too high, and you’re going to cause a cardiac arrest. I have elsewhere voiced my anxieties about schmaltz, saying of its usual superlatives, that “touching” is a euphemism for (emotional) molestation and “uplifting” has an erectile suggestion. Pleasingly, Lucky manages to attain an admirable balance, refusing the graceless lurch towards the sodden and soppy to which so many of its cinematic brethren succumb. This is a story about an eponymously named orphan questing for a better life in the city (an immediate irony: Lucky just can’t get hisself a break), but it’s not a fairy-tale confection of cheap redemptions. The narrative is measured, troubled and also hopeful.
It needs to be said with vulgar efficiency, that this film is kak depressing. Yet it allows sly slivers of hope to flicker in its most courageous moments without ever being coercive or didactic. To give an example of a film in the latter league, consider Thembi from about two years ago. There a young kid from the township contracts HIV after being raped, but manages to “make it” through his prodigious talents for soccer. The film too easily gives itself over to non-complex forms of pathos and schmaltz. Lucky, however, has nothing extraordinary about him – even in his resilience and stubbornness. This isn’t a film searching out grand acts of heroism in the gutters and mildew-ravaged tenements. Its acts of faith are subtle and deeply embattled (more on this later).
Lucky opens up with some negative news. Our dear orphan is made such: his mother returns to the village in a coffin, and he glimpses her ashen face in its empty rigor mortis. He refuses to attend the consolatory wake, finding nothing for himself left there. Fatherless (the man who sired him split after his birth and he’s never met him), he packs up his meager possessions and heads for the city, where his mother told him, that should anything ever happen to her, his uncle would look after him and send him to school. The city that Lucky emerges into does not throb with neon light, bursting with promise and opportunity. It’s a lower-grade Natal suburb with harried taxi ranks and neglected apartments. Here uLucky quickly discovers that his uncle – a whoring, aggressive lout – has squandered the money his mother left for school. His mother also left behind a bright red cassette tape, and earlier on the movie, it provides the narrative thrust, as he searches out a tape deck on which to play its mournful message.
That tape-deck is found in the apartment next door, where an aged Hindi woman lives a seething and isolated life. Initially, the two do not get along, but the point of the film is to show their tortured reconciliation: the murk of history consumes this relationship earlier on, but slowly prejudices are relinquished – and importantly, not altogether. The woman is Padma. She is quite frankly a North Indian artefact of Apartheid: suspicious, racist (“get away you black dogs” she says) and believes in an inherent cultural superiority of Indians. It’s that sort of person who has swallowed whole the hierarchies of Apartheid: White people are the bosses, Indians come next in line, Coloureds are lower down and Blacks lurk at its abyssal pit. In this neighbourhood, Padma eulogises for the days when the neighbourhood was exclusively Injun. Now the Blacks have ostensibly dragged their venom and vice into her territory, and polluted it.
Padma takes Lucky in with an attitude of racial maternalism. She makes him sleep on the balcony, is scared he will hurt or rob her, tells him “inside is not for you”, later tries to abandon him on the side of a road. She treats him like a dog, although in her racialised logic that is an act of ultimate charity. So this faltering relationship is the locus at which a cross-cultural collision is chartered (for one obvious pointer of hitting up against a cultural wall, she speaks Hindi and he speaks Zulu). In this sense, the film is well-historied and its characters are made on solid sociopolitical grounds – they don’t function as politically evacuated puppets, there to tell a universal story of staggered human warmth. They are products of their history, bound by their circumstances and discursive spaces. The merits of the relationship (and the episodes which make, un-make and re-make its redemptive possibilities) consist largely in assured acting. Ten year-old Lucky (Sihle Dlamini) is mischievous, desperate and resourceful in a self-interested way. Padma’s (Jayashree Basavaraj) acting is superb: she’s irritatingly and accurately racist, and her method of saving Lucky veers between curious affection and dislike, and wanting to keep him or take him back to his village. Dumisani (Vusi Kunene), a funereal preacher who may or may not be Lucky’s father, also gives a strong performance.
So, Lucky plays with schmaltz and heart-grabbing and hope, but always with measure – it is assured film-making, not bold or brilliant, simply robust. It can be appreciated for what it tries to achieve, and manages to achieve without getting too caught up in the clichés which this genre of cinema survives on. Yes, the film will stretch credulity at certain points, it will even lull (the above is all disinterested analysis; on personal terms I wasn’t enthralled by it, and I imagine it won’t cut a wide appeal given that younger crowds probably aren’t interested in this sort of thing). And certainly, there are moments of reduction and simplicity. But taken together they produce a South African film that isn’t mainly about making mute concessions to the rules. The film is ultimately an admirable effort and therefore doesn’t deserve my usual scorching.
*Lucky plays tonight at 8 PM at the Oude Libertas Amphitheatre as part of the Cape Winelands Film Festival. A full schedule is available here.