A reality check
In keeping with the flavour of the season, here’s a quiz question for your thought menu. Now that
has romped home with a sackful of Oscars, the next time a scraggly, street kid sidles up to your car window and stretches out a tiny, pleading, desperate hand, will you, a) grumpily order your driver to hit the accelerator and quickly drive ahead; b) slink lower into the plush leather of your seat and squirm in awkward guilt; c) place a Rs 10 note in the child’s hand and feel better; or- d) crib about how India can’t hope to make a mark in the world if beggar children swarm our streets?
Make no mistake; I loved the film. Even before the Oscars provided the carpers in Urban India with a legitimate alibi to love it as well, I found the entire debate around whether Danny Boyle was guilty of ‘exploiting poverty’ both false and petty. On the contrary, I thought the movie succeeded marvellously at capturing the can-do spirit of India, while being mercilessly honest in chronicling its underbelly. unrealistic? Perhaps. But only as much as the angry-young man allegories of the ‘70s, when Amitabh Bachchan could single-handedly eliminate the bad guys. Would the West have reacted in the same way had an Indian made the same film? Maybe not, but so what? That doesn’t mean the film should have been held up to a different ethical standard than our own movies. Frankly, I thought a lot of the cribbing was rooted in xenophobic insecurity.
But have you noticed how the Oscar win has suddenly papered over all the differences? Other than a handful of staunch naysayers, much of India is now exulting in the global recognition. We can’t get enough of what Freida Pinto wore on the red carpet, and what Angelina Jolie said to her and whether ‘Jai Ho’ is now an international chant. So, in a matter of days, the discourse has conveniently changed from complaining about the ‘outsiders’ exploiting us to celebrating how the “outsiders” are finally recognising us. In other words, we didn’t like being confronted with the naked truth of our slums; but we sure as hell love the Oscars.
What does this paradoxical response tell us about ourselves as a people? My guess is that New India quite simply got accustomed to being branded in terms of Bangalore rather than beggars. In our self-image we were home to the world’s outsourcing capital; not to Asia’s largest slum. After decades of being stereotyped in postcard images of poverty and saffron saints, we wanted the visual memory of India to be radically different. The dapper Wall Street Banker now defined the Indian Diaspora instead of the Gujarati newsstand owner. We were tired of being asked preposterous questions about how we spoke such good English (so what if “we” just made up about 3-5 per cent of our country). And by the time Forbes figured out that some Indians were stinking rich, we were vicariously celebrating our new branding in the global imagination. Quite simply, a burgeoning middle-class was so enamoured of its own energy and skills, that we simply forgot that more than 800 million people in India still earn less than 20 rupees a day. In other words the Oscar ties in with the self-image we seek; the slums remind us of what we try and forget.
To some extent the Indian frustration with misinformed and over-simplistic Western perceptions is understandable. We understand that many different threads have been woven together to create our national tapestry. We know that the street urchin and the Nano are both pieces of the Indian jigsaw. We get the fact that Infosys is one truth of India, Dharavi is another and they don’t cancel each other out. We have worshipped A.R. Rahman for years, and think it’s about time the rest of the world woke up to his genius. And yes, we grew very tired of the glossy, coffee-table books that could only capture the ‘colour’ of India through cows, garbage and holy men.
Those of us who studied at American and British universities 15 years ago have vivid memories of fighting prejudice and ignorance about our country. So, anything that may trigger that old India cliché evokes both hostility and resistance in us. That could explain some of the strange anger that Slumdog Millionaire evoked in India. I didn’t agree with it — especially since I thought the movie was about the innate fighting spirit that defines India — but I can understand where it comes from.
What is tougher to understand is why international recognition changes our mind. Take, Trinidad-born, V.S. Naipaul for example. He famously enraged India by describing it as the “world’s largest slum” and by calling us a “race of withered men.” He made a career out of pulling us down and rubbishing us as a wounded civilisation. But I can bet you that for all our discomfort at his writings, we would still like to claim his Nobel Prize as an ‘Indian’ win. We fell over ourselves to claim Bobby Jindal and Sunita Williams as our own as well, ignoring their own disassociations. Are we this starved for Western approval?
It’s ironic that Slumdog Millionaire was able to be much more affectionate about India, warts and all, than many of us, trapped in our own strange self-loathing are able to be. It’s almost as if we want the magic mirror that the Queen had in Snowhite; one that will only show us the bits of us we like, and allow us to hide from the rest.
(Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV)