Chai isn't tea. 'Tea' is just a beverage whereas 'chai' is a whole cultural phenomenon. As a South Asian you have a personal relationship with chai. It's at the centre of interlinking stories of family, home, friendships and daily rituals. The experience of chai that is shared among Brown people is so intimate and exclusive that it simply cannot be explained if you did not grow up in a desi household. It can only be borrowed as a fractured piece of culture to become a flavour like Starbucks' chai tea latte.
And honestly, the speeding montage of moments that runs through my mind when I think of 'chai' is pretty difficult to express. Or so I thought until I watched The Art of Chai by Shehzad Malik. Shehzad is a content creator from Karachi, Pakistan who is known for his super funny idiosyncratic desi content on his Instagram account, The Shehzad Show. He also loves filmmaking and has released a few short films on his YouTube channel, The Art of Chai being the latest.
This 38-minute film is part documentary, part commentary and part tribute to chai from the perspective of a Brown man. In the film, Shehzad dives into the culture of chai and dissects it for us to understand why this beverage is loved by an entire ethnic group. Divided into 4 acts, the filmmaker takes us through an explorative journey of chai's ingredients, impact, ethos and his personal relationship with it.
The film is creatively written, shot and even more brilliantly edited. It's not about the history of chai but the value of it in people's lives and what it means to them. And Shehzad offers a fascinating lens to look at this simple refreshing drink. The beauty of the culture of chai is brought out in the film by portraying how when we mean chai, we mean conversations, quality time, companionship, and the tender silence shared between people who are comfortable in each other's presence. Like the title suggests, it's less about chai and more about the art of it.
We all know the 'Indians love chai' narrative but haven't really taken a moment to realize why it means so much to us.
I don't drink chai. My mother didn't allow me to drink it whenever it was served in our family because she believed it would make my skin darker than it already was. Yet, chai-biscuit was my snack. I would dip my Parle-G, Marie Gold, Krack Jack or 50-50 in it and my father would drink the leftover chai; that was our ritual. This snack was also exclusive to my family home. I never ate chai-biscuit in Hyderabad or Pune where I moved for studies because there was no one to finish my leftover chai.
Every family has their brand and ours was Red Label. Its fragrance would fill up our home 3 times a day, every day, like clockwork. In the later years, when my mother's mental health declined, I learnt how to make chai for my father and the guests. Now I live alone and there's no chai in the kitchen, Red Label or otherwise.
Like mine, chai is a part of everyone's story whether they drink it or not and that's its value. A friend of Shehzad calls chai an 'existential anchor' in the film; something that grounds us, something we return to again and again to affirm that we're here, in the present moment; like music, dance or any other artform which demands our meditative attention. In this endearing film, apart from being embodied as an essence of traditional South Asian values of connection, ritual and hospitality, chai is depicted as a medium of interaction, in our relationships with people, ourselves and with time itself.
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