“Indelible Lalita” documents Lalita Bharvani’s amazing effort to cope with vitiligo, cancer, and heart surgery.
“Indelible Lalita” documents Lalita Bharvani’s amazing effort to cope with vitiligo, cancer, and heart surgery.
Julie Mallozzi

Part medical journal, part spiritual journey, “Indelible Lalita” is about how one woman, the unforgettable Lalita Bharvani, copes with various health obstacles including vitiligo, the skin condition (made famous by Michael Jackson) that causes loss of pigment. While the alteration of one’s appearance would be difficult for anyone, for a dark-skinned person to gradually become white is especially challenging. But in Bharvani, filmmaker Julie Mallozzi has found a subject so spirited and serene that even themes as potentially lofty as identity transformation are brought down to earth.

Born in Bombay in 1948, Bharvani began to have health issues as a young girl. Her mother’s chief concern was that Lalita would not find a husband. Coming of age in the 1960s, at a time when young people flocked to India seeking enlightenment, Bharvani traveled with friends to Paris, eventually migrating with her husband, Pierre Lanthier, to her current home in Montreal. Besides using photographs and archival footage, Mallozzi, a Boston-based filmmaker who also shot and edited the film, has layered her subjects’ stories with an intimate, visually arresting style that, without heavy handedness, conveys the impermanence of life.

Mallozzi’s film takes us with Bharvani into hospitals and through tests and painful procedures. Bharvani recounts being diagnosed at 30 with ovarian cancer, the hysterectomy that followed, and how that loss and the inability to bear children altered her life. We travel with her to India, where she visits her elderly mother. It’s a poignant meeting of two souls facing the certainty of an uncertain future.

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In her 60s, Bharvani undergoes heart surgery and endures a recurrence of cancer. We also see her at home, with the supportive Lanthier, enjoying simple pleasures such as cooking, watering plants, and tending to her Hindu shrine. Leaves are a recurring motif in the film, from small art prints that Bharvani collects to the henna tattoos that mark her hands.

Mallozzi juxtaposes shots — set to Jorrit Dijkstra’s delicate score — of the ordinary in Bharvani’s life (droplets of water on a car windshield, the veined petals of an orchid) with the alien things that have invaded it (X-rays, CT scans of white spots signifying cancer). Her film is a poetic visual essay about the transience of all things, especially the human body.

Avoiding clichéd admiration or sentiment, “Indelible Lalita” aims instead to be an honest portrait of one woman’s journey. Through the singularly magnetic presence of Bharvani, the film becomes a universal offering for how to live one’s life.

Mallozzi, Bharvani, and Lanthier will attend the film’s opening screening on Jan. 10 at
7:30 p.m. at the MFA.