Max Pinckers’ Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty is asymmetrical, unpretty, inconsistent. It mirrors our own bright, cluttered yearning, our own complex, loving hearts. It shows us what love is by showing us what it’s not. Cracked blue walls and a red scarf hanging from a fan. A charred red rose. A photograph of a photograph. Twin stained mattresses pushed together on a rooftop. A marriage carriage. How lovers’ hands play when they know they are safe. How love can be death sometimes. How sometimes you only really know what love is when you aren’t allowed.
As a visual story, the Love Commandos are at the core – five men based in New Delhi who help young couples facing family opposition to their love due to caste, class or religious differences. Pinckers captures or stages the couples (it’s hard sometimes to know which) in the cramped blue-walled rooms of the Love Commandos’ headquarters, toeing the line between fantasy and reality, weaving the Bollywood paradigm of romantic love into the stark, terrifying reality that some young Indians face to be together across strict social hierarchies.
India – economically-booming, bursting-at-the-seams India – with all its contradiction, is positively spilling over with love. Amid the dusty chaos, the mess and crumble of infrastructure, the crowded, screeching streets, the symphonies of spices and sweat and saris and suffering, it is a place that burns with pathos, sparkles and whirls in ecstasy, touches with tender devotion. Pinckers captures all of this, collects it skillfully – as much anthropologist, archeologist, and poet as photographer – and displays it in such a way that our eyes seek out and find the love between things that are not love.
He shoots found photographs, digital backdrops of Bollywood sets, sculptures made on location by artist Gauthier Oushoorn, as well as staged and captured scenes of both people and objects, and each one of these 172 photographs is exactly where it’s meant to be. A dress on fire. A dove in a man’s hand with a bandaid on the pinky. An email to the Love Commandos. Two teenage girls on the dirty rocks of a city river, glossy haired and smiling, one leading the other somewhere. A woman throwing a paper airplane over corrugated iron roofs to a man on another rooftop. Young boys playing chess. A rusty abandoned amusement park ride. Two dead birds on a stained cloth. A waterfall. A city from above, teeming. Photographs of couples with their heads digitally removed. Marriage rituals. A man with a girl who could be his wife or could be his daughter, both scowling into the sun, or into Pinckers’ flash, who knows. A poster of four white horses charging through the ocean with the words You really can change the world if you care enough.
He also uses words, in the form of photographed texts, emails, and newspaper clippings to capture not only the chilling facts of honor killings and disinheritances – Bro beheads Sister reads one small headline, off to the side like it’s no big deal – but also the beautiful and unique language that owes its poetry to the sing-song of Indian English as well as the throes of real desperation. Part of one email written to the Love Commandos reads: ...that was a horror seen in the night by the riverside wilderness, far from the reach of common people. They chased me and fired many bullets. Then they tried to search me after that night’s failed attempt. I did not even lodged any complaint for my beloved safety. For they had threatened to kill her with living wires current.
Pinckers as witness is both outsider and insider. He was born in Belgium but grew up in Asia and he handles heartbreaking material with a combination of cultural sensitivity, critical observation, and the ease of a global nomad. His lightness of touch is never disrespectful, and as intimate as he is, he never feels invasive, inviting us to look at the story from as many angles as we can, sometimes with irony and humor but never with judgment. Even when staring unflinching at tragedy, he refrains from casting his subjects in shadows of blame or victimhood, and where he captures the ache of forbidden love, he resists falling into cliché, even as he acknowledges and appreciates its presence.
Henry David Thoreau said a lover never hears anything that is told, for that is commonly either false or stale; but he hears things taking place. Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty, titled after an English subtitle in a Bollywood film, draws into focus a bright and devastating carnival of subjects that do not tell us what love is, but hold space for love to take place. Fantasy, kitsch, cliché, poverty, oppression, modernization, struggle of every ilk, irony, longing, fear, and death clamber over each other in this exploration of romantic love in contemporary India. But it’s an exploration of ourselves too, of our own uniquely wild and baffling contradictions when it comes to love. And because Pinckers doesn’t tell us what to think, but let’s us witness things as they take place, love itself seeps in at the corners, hovers in the background, grows through the cracks, exposing the walls we have built to keep it out.