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Synopsis: Chai. Chaya. Chaha. Cha. Sa. For a phenomenon that is assumed to be integral to ‘Indian culture’, tea drinking only gained ground over a century ago. A successful advertisement campaign and copious promotion of tea turned it into an essential everyday beverage, closely seconded by coffee. ‘Authentic’ methods of preparation, though, were tweaked to suit tastes and tea drinking became as diverse as the culture of the subcontinent; from saccharine-sweet, spiced, ‘cooked’ tea to sumptuous long-leaf and salted, buttered concoctions, the camellia sinensis was savoured in all textures and climates.
Much like other culinary practices, tea began to define individual and community identities, similarities and differences. While tea made some spaces thoroughly inclusive, it also rendered many inaccessible. Elite tea drinking required that tea leaves be luxurious and abundant per cup. The chai tapris or tea stalls, on the other hand, re-used and stretched the flavour of smaller quanitities to make tea affordable. The same stalls, although seemingly approachable across class, often turned out to be sites of marginalization for gender and caste minorities. Who drank tea, where and how was marked by what one was perceived to be, making the very act mundane or revolutionary. And yet, the unifying characteristic of tea found crevices to emerge and rupture this narrative. The ability of this unassuming cup to initiate stirring conversation and debate, or make space amidst the commercial chaos to simply ‘loiter’ and relax, was remarkable.
Steeped and Stirred explores tea preparation and drinking in diverse contexts, to explore the social, cultural and political history of tea drinking in India. It tries to understand the various ways in which tea unites and divides us by connecting multiple narratives from across the country. Through an audio-visual canvas of the lush tea gardens of West Bengal, the buzzing coffee houses of Kolkata and Thiruvananthapuram, the bustling Irani cafes of Mumbai and Hyderabad and the omnipresent chai tapri, this film captures the essence of tea drinking in India in all its eccentricity.
Producer: Public Service Broadcasting Trust; Year of Release: 2016; Telecast on Doordarshan (DD National) 2016
World Premiere: PSBT Open Frame Film Festival, New Delhi 2016
Credits: V. R. Harish (Sound Recording, Design and Mixing), Shweta Ghosh (Script, Direction, Camera & Edit), Surya Narayanan (Colour Correction and Grading)