Shweta Ghosh’s documentary Steeped and Stirred opens with a top-angle shot of a tea estate and keeps moving closer to the ground during its 50-minute duration. Ghosh has researched, written, edited and shot Steeped and Stirred, and she packs in a range of subjects, from the introduction of tea to the Indian palette during colonial times to its present-day ubiquity across towns, cities and villages. Apart from a short history of tea in India, which includes the initial snobbery attached to its consumption, the film covers the political and cultural connotations of the hot beverage. Tea is more than just the unofficial national drink. It is a marker of unfair labour practices, caste prejudices, migration, and women’s access to public space.
One of the episodes from the Public Service Broadcasting Trust production is from Bawla in Gujarat, where Dalits speak of how they are served tea in upper-caste households (in separate cups into which the beverage is always poured from a great height). In at least 64 per cent of village panchayats in the state, Dalit members are made to sit separately and are served tea in different cups, revealed a survey by the non-governmental organisation Navsarjan Trust. Martin Macwan, the trust’s founder, speaks movingly about a “museum of tea cups” – non-Dalits in Gujarat’s villages keep tea cups on or under the roof or display them on the fence to ensure that rigid caste pollution norms are not violated.
In Mumbai, gender rights scholar Shilpa Phadke reveals how women’s access to public space affects tea consumption. Women are unlikely to drink tea at local shacks if they are unaccompanied by men, and this fluorescent bulb-lit “interior tea space” is the preserve of men.
The ambition to blend the weighty with the frothy means that a deeper discussion on frequent agitations by tea estate workers for improved working conditions gets lost in the brew. Ghosh often leavens her material by interviewing tea addicts who confess that their brains (and probably bowels) do not move without the early morning cup. Clips from such films as Baazigar and Holiday remind us of the importance of tea to the arranged marriage ritual of checking out the bride, while visits to Irani cafés in Mumbai and Hyderabad reveal community spaces within which tea, snacks and conversation flow.
The veteran owner of the legendary Yazdani Irani café in Mumbai warns that restaurant owners should never pass on the rising costs of food production to their consumers: “Always think of the downtrodden.”
In one of the most undeniably charming episodes, a 90-year-old Hyderabad resident explains the perfect tea cup – filed to the brim, very sweet, and so hot that it dances on the tongue.
Steeped and Stirred has enough of a travelogue element to qualify as a light watch, and enough political smarts to be a semi-serious engagement with the politics of tea consumption. Ghosh skillfully edits the film to ensure that there are no jarring transitions. However, the sharp focus in her previous documentary Accsex, about the sexual desires and needs of disabled women, is missing in Steeped and Stirred. What we get is a blend of different and often disparate elements as the filmmaker stays faithful to the film’s title and attempts to simultaneously commemorate and critique tea consumption.