Saturday, January 17, 2009

Adiga, Slumdog, Nargis – and India


Do people in the west love to see the ugly side of India? We may talk big about the rising number of Indian billionaires, but does the world out there have a vested interest in applauding and promoting the horrible realities of India – its atrocious poverty, its way of degrading women, abusing children?

The question arose when Aravind Adiga’s ‘White Tiger” won the Booker Prize. As a literary work, the novel had its fault lines. But it was its theme that caught attention. Indian reviewers dismissed it as unworthy. The west hailed it as a new voice and as a ‘bald, unadorned portrait of India as seen from the bottom of the heap’.

That was the point: The bottom of the heap, not the top of the glittering malls and the exclusive clubs in hotels where a shot of single malt whisky sells for ten and twenty thousand rupees. These comfort zones of the few boost our national ego, the dehumanizing poverty of the many is uncomfortable and therefore ignored.

Adiga not only does not ignore it, he makes a visible molehill out of the mountain. Almost brutally he shows how poverty corrupts the mind, now hypocrisies colour most things Indian, from the naming of roads to that incomparable Indianism, “Indian made Foreign Liquor”. His sarcasm is biting when he refers to “the 36,000,004 gods” of India and to the country’s cockroach population (for which, mercifully, he does not give a figure). Is this spilling of the filthy innards of India that attracts westerners and irritates Indians?

Then comes “Slumdog Millionaire” with its Golden Globes. Did this movie win so many awards because it, too, is a brutal expose of the dehumanizing life in Indian slums? Bombay’s slums are an old shame. In Dharavi, the world’s biggest and most putrid slum, people live like insects, cooking their food while channels of excreta flow all around them. Whole lives are spent there with no escape from the appalling conditions that breed child trafficking, supari killings, incest, homosexuality, prostitution. It is difficult to imagine such inhuman existence, yet it exists.

Successive Governments have managed not to notice the presence of such a national disgrace right before their eyes. The rest of the population just close their eyes, their nostrils and their consciences and carry on. But now the whole world can see graphic, technicolor portrayals of India’s shame. Some filth scenes are so realistic as to be disgusting and shocking at the same time.

So even as we lionize A.R. Rahman for his trophies, will we dismiss “Slumdog Millionaire” as a dark movie unworthy of honours? Or should we have the honesty to accept that exposing a disgrace is not the offence; allowing the disgrace to exist is the real offence.

The tendency to shoot the messenger is fundamentally hypocritical, and we have been guilty of it from early on. When that all time classic “Pather Panchali” was released in 1955, its creator Satyajit Ray was viciously attacked. Not by any fly-by-night reviewer, but by Nargis herself. The Queen of the screen in the 1950’s Golden Age of Indian Cinema stood up in the Rajya Sabha and called Satyajit Ray a Peddler of India’s poverty. She said in a subsequent interview that “Pather Panchali” became successful abroad because foreigners wanted to see India in a groveling posture. Then came her unforgivable accusation – that Satyajit Ray made such films in order to win awards. Many NRIs in America had also complained about the depiction of poverty in that film. Delhi’s response to these criticisms was to tighten censorship rules to ban portrayal of “Disgusting Poverty”.

Which shows what our official policy is. Poverty is okay, portraying it is not okay. Killing newborn baby girls is okay so long as no one reports it. Dowry deaths and throwing acid on unobliging girls is okay so long as no books are written on them. Accepting bribe money in bundles is okay, but putting it on camera is a crime inviting nemesis. Raping minorities and ghettoizing the survivors of pogroms is okay so long as there are enough industrialists to talk of development.

We are experts in double-speak. We flourish on double standards. Jai Hind!