Driss and Philippe—a Friendship Beyond Their Borders

I still remember the first time I watched my favourite movie. One of my university friends was an avid fan of foreign films, and he gave me his hard drive to extract all there was from it. I took it all, and then started periodically knocking off films, one after the other. With each movie I was opened up to a new world. Latin American films (‘Amores Perros’ starring Gabriel Garcia Bernal), Israeli films (‘Waltz with Bashir’ by Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman), and Asian films (‘Yi Yi’ a film set in Taiwan following the lives of the Jian family from their alternating perspectives) — I revelled in them. My world view, though even broader than most due to my TCK heritage, was further widened every time I watched another film from the magical hard drive collection. My weekends were now spent in front of the laptop, as opposed to out on the town. I felt there was much more substance in the former than there was in the latter.

One of these evenings, I curled up in front of the laptop, and I switched on the next movie on the list. I had a habit of not reading up on the scripts beforehand, so that everything was raw and new. The movie was called ‘The Intouchables’ and it was about how a stuffy rich employer finds his life enriched by a wise black man from the Paris ghettos, taking lessons in funky music and the joys of marijuana.

Philippe (Francois Cluzet) was a millionaire, paralyzed from the neck down in a paragliding accident. Driss (Omar Sy) was a man out on parole for robbery, who applies for a job as Philippe's caregiver, only so he can be rejected and get a signature on his application for unemployment benefits. As Philippe interviews one boring job applicant after another, I began to understand that he needed not only physical help but emotional support as well. Driss' cheeky irreverence was refreshing, and Philippe astonishes him and his own household staff by offering him the job.

This was a story of a growing relationship between these two men from completely different cultures, based on Driss' confidence that Philippe would improve if he escaped his stuck-up lifestyle and sampled the greater freedoms of an immigrant from Africa. Driss has rhythm and soul, and if only Philippe could absorb some of that, he'd be a happier man.

‘The Intouchables’ had an element of truth that I found quite profound. The role of a good caregiver wasn’t limited to lifting, bathing, grooming, dressing, pushing and supplying medicines. Philippe was faced with a reality he found difficult to accept: he had been deprived of all he once took for granted, such as the simple ability to walk across a room. A caregiver can't provide that, but he can provide something more valuable: companionship. Philippe's wife is dead, his teenage daughter is a snotty brat, and his staff is preoccupied by their salaries and status. Driss comes from a different world, a different culture, and therefore, a different mindset.

What struck me so profoundly about this movie was how two people from vastly different cultures could build an intimate relationship on something so basic and essential as companionship. Their understanding of companionship varied greatly, due to their cultural backgrounds, however it was the feelings and emotions that the caregiver provided which trumped that of any physical action such as feeding, clothing or bathing.

This feeling of intimacy was something I grappled with greatly as a TCK. As a Pakistani kid moving to Australia, the isolation and alienation was something that hung in the air for years. It was sport, however, that was one of the binding elements which helped me see my class fellows eye to eye. Inter-house and inter-school athletics were an area where we were all equals. I would see even the most hostile and standoffish people backing me for the greater cause. As I excelled in sports, they first learnt to respect me as a sportsman, and then as a human being.

This isolation was also something I felt when I moved back to Pakistan, after living over 10 years in Australia. Having come back after so long, I felt like a foreigner in my own land, the cultural norms being so different from those of Australia. Respect and acceptance were, just like in Australia, based on one’s ability to fit into the narrowly defined social norms. My understanding of these was elementary, but it was through my own effort to re-learn the national language, reorient myself with cultural activities, and engage in building relationships with people from diverse social and ethnic backgrounds which allowed me to mould myself to what was required in the Pakistani workplace.

Upon reflection, I realised that both my Australian class fellows and my Pakistani work fellows both inherently wanted an intimate relationship, but it was built around the framework of somewhat limited social norms (sport, language, and engagement in cultural activity). I just had to earn my stripes, just like Driss did, going through the teething period of being Philippe’s caregiver.

The intimate companionship I have been able to foster in both my TCK countries has allowed me to understand the global truth, that against the backdrop of cultural differences, we all want intimate relationships. Driss and Philippe reinforced this and gave me hope that I will continue to foster such relationships, wherever my TCK travels take me.