An extraordinary tale

17:00, Aug 07 2014
Jean Aunty
LOCAL CELEBRITY: Aunty and the Star People is screening as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival

In New Zealand, writer Jean Watson is an anonymous elderly woman living in a modest Wellington flat. In southern India she is revered as the famous "Jean Aunty". Christchurch-based film-maker Gerard Smyth tells Vicki Anderson about the documentary which explores Watson's fascinating double life. 

Jean Watson's story is one of chance and circumstance.

It is also a story of kindness which spans decades and has changed thousands of Indian children's lives.

Christchurch film-maker Gerard Smyth's documentary Aunty and the Star People, about Watson's life, was born of similar, serendipitous situations.

"Remember Evil Genius, the record store in Lyttelton which opened a couple of days before the 2011 quake?," Smyth says. "My daughter Rosie was half of the Evil Genius; she had the coffee machine in there. She took it up to Wellington and set up in the corner of the new Evil Genius."

Next door to Evil Genius, out the back of a chocolate shop, was 80-year-old Watson.


"Jo Coffey had the chocolate shop next door," he says. "I had gone to school with her brother about a million years ago. She rang me up, told me about Jean and I went to meet them. The film is about chance and circumstance and how this film got to be made was very similar."

Coffey also took on the role of executive producer to help Smyth tell Watson's extraordinary story. Watson, Smyth says, was rather self-deprecating about the notion.

"The fact that she wasn't interested made me more interested," Smyth laughs.

"She only agreed because she thought it might help out the Karunai Illam Trust."

Unassuming heroism may be the only kind that makes any sense to Smyth, whose back catalogue includes the acclaimed documentary about the Christchurch earthquakes, When a City Falls.

Smyth is drawn to documenting New Zealand stories and by the end of his account of Watson's surprising life you might wonder why there hasn't been a film about her already.

Aunty and the Star People is screening as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival

"I lived there, in a little rural town in the middle [of] Tamil Nadu, southern India, for two months," Smyth says. "I work better if I make a film quite slowly. It was in my own time and I had been working a lot on quake stuff. I took the opportunity to get out of dodge on one level. I enjoyed wonderful Indian food and optimism all around."

Watson is best known in New Zealand for her 1965 novel, Stand in the Rain, based on her decade-long relationship with Barry Crump.

But the story of her involvement over three decades in the state of Tamil Nadu, where the people refer to her affectionately as "aunty", has gone untold until now.

More than 30 years ago she sold her Wellington house and used the proceeds to buy the land for an Illam, or home, for the children of Nilakottai in Tamil Nadu.

Now The Karunai Illam Trust includes an orphanage, school and community college. It offers a home to children, who have either been orphaned or whose parents are unwell, to oversee their education.

Since then she's made frequent visits and in the documentary Watson guides viewers around the rapidly changing world of her "Star People", named for the white stars painted on their faces.

The value of her work is reflected in the shining eyes of the children enjoying shelter and educational opportunities.

"I wanted to make a biography of an extraordinary Kiwi," Smyth says. "Her weird walking without plans but taking on big things at the drop of a hat, that's her whole history."

Watson's journey began when friend and author Joy Cowley shouted her a trip to India. Cowley had to return to New Zealand after she received word that her husband was dying. "Jean who had really not travelled, who had a difficult time with Barry Crump as her partner, had two children with Barry and her third child had died.

"There she was, bereft in India, when she met someone in a railway station and gave all her money to him."

That man was trying to start a children's home. Watson told him she would go back to New Zealand and raise money to help him.

"But she was on the dole at the time so she didn't really have any money, yet 30 years later she has changed the lives of thousands of Indian people.

"Jane Bowron remembers being in the Duke, the old pub in Wellington, and someone passing around a hat in the early days and that's how Jean was funding it, from the Wellington hippies and alternative crowd."

Watson sold her home in Aro Street, the home she bought with the sales from her novel. In India they needed land urgently and she gave, not all of the money, but most of it, to them.

"She carried on with a wing and a prayer really. It's amazing. She has had such a rich life as a result which is what the film shows. By giving it away it comes back ten- fold.

"She lives that in her naive way. She is a writer and a fiercely private person."

Smyth made the film on the "smell of an oily nothing".

"It's hard to get funding for these sorts of stories. We were sort of unfunded, we got finishing funding."

The film describes how she nearly lost it all six years ago when someone tried to "steal it all" off her. Watson partnered with a large Indian non-governmental organisation and now a large combined home is being built and her dream is being realised.

"These are children who came from the most unfortunate of circumstances. One is now going to be a brain surgeon in Russia. That's pretty cool."


Screening as part of the Christchurch leg of the New Zealand International Film Festival, Aunty and the Star People screens at Hoyts Northlands: Saturday (6.15pm), Wednesday (2pm), Sunday, August 17 (1.30pm) and Saturday, August 23 (4pm). 82 minutes duration. For more information, see

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