From the land of elephants and snake charmers to the land of shit-swimming slumdogs... Indian media goes hysterical!



And Indian politicians remain as shameless as ever!

The Oscars have been won – as expected! And it sure was a pleasure to hear Resul Pookutty speak about the power of silence and Om, and give Hollywood a chalk-talk lesson or two about Indian philosophy. It was also a great feeling to see the Indian living legend – A R Rahman – get something he more than deserved (though he has done far better work as well). The Indian film fraternity has some amazing green thumb talent; and some of them surely are at par with the world’s best. Thus, although only these two (Rahman and Resul) got the Oscar, I am sure there are many more deserving Indians out there who are no inferior. The only unfortunate thing is that the Oscars for them were awarded for a film that has been made clearly with one callow intention in mind – to draw up a caricature of every possible negative side that is there to India, for the sole viewing pleasure of western audiences – as I wrote in my editorial on the same issue a few weeks back (to read the same, log on to http://arindamchaudhuri.blogspot.com/2009/01/dont-see-slumdog-millionaire-it-sucks.html). Having said most of all I wanted to say about the film the last time, this time there are two more aspects to the slumdog phenomenon I wish to highlight!

I really don’t want to take away from the happiness of the Indians who won the big awards; and surely they deserve all the accolades. And as I wrote earlier, it sure is a well made film with an interesting narrative style. However, I am quite shocked at the shameful euphoria created by the half educated Indian media that has unanimously termed the movie as an “Indian pride” and “the world taking note of India”. Neither could anything be further from the truth than this nor could anything stink more of a pathetic lack of intellect and understanding of reality. While a considerable number of people are saying that it (Slumdog Millionaire) is just a film and should be simply enjoyed as a creative process and left alone, the fact – as I wrote before – is that it also happens to be a film very evidently made to show ‘only’ everything that is possibly wrong with India (often, in a completely concocted manner) for the pure viewing pleasure of western audiences, because poverty-porn sells in the west. Yes, the movie has been marketed well... as the feel-good film of the year (for the western audiences most certainly)! To me, it surely is the most negative feel-good film I have seen! As a film, it works; but it really is then just a film... It has no commitment, for it delves on no issue and shows poverty in the most depoliticized manner. From the name of the film (Jhoparpatti Ke Kutte Bane Crorepati – if one were to translate the movie’s name into Hindi), to every scene in the film including Anil Kapoor’s completely unreal character, the movie has a clear dilettante attempt to show India in a deliberately abrogating manner. Leading NGOs working in Mumbai slums have vouched that they have never seen maiming of children for begging – in fact ask yourself, how many times have you ever seen a blind child beggar? All those who have read our cover story on the film (http://www.thesundayindian.com/08022009/default.asp) would know how at every stage, the flick has just played with reality to show India in a jaundiced light without any obvious commitment to showing the pains of poverty – apart from Danny Boyle’s surrogate post-film speeches of course! Far from it bringing any glory to India or Indians, Boyle’s caustic photoplay has only satisfied the western urge to look further down upon the ‘repugnant’ India, especially at a time when while they are reeling under depression, India is purposefully growing healthily. The evident western desperation to speciously paint India so vacuously couldn’t have been shallower. Globalization backfired on them and took away their jobs... So it obviously feels great to see this side to India and heartily award it as well!!

The west would have wanted to believe India still is a land of elephants and snake charmers; and therefore, were very uncomfortable thinking that perchance it no more seems to be so and was changing too fast for their comfort. Now they know India has changed indeed!!! It is no more the land of elephants and snake charmers... It is the land of shit-swimming slumdogs, who are turning millionaires... more by goddamned luck than by hard work. That’s their new view of India. That is the power of a well made and well marketed film and that is the new brand image of India that one film has been able to create. And that is why this film cannot be left alone by Indians as just a film. People have to realize its ramifications. Today, when you meet anyone who has seen the film abroad but has not been to India (well, most haven’t), amongst many other similar questions, you are faced with the question – do kids really swim in shitholes as shown in the film?

That, however, brings us to the second very important aspect. While what I wrote above is an undisputable fact, the fact also is that poverty and slums are the ugly reality of India. And yes, while the people living in slums are not dogs, this country unfortunately makes them live worse than the way western people could think of making their dogs live about five decades back! So India, this new image of India – of slumdog millionaires – was waiting to be created. It has been our own doing... or undoing. And as I sat watching this year’s budget in the midst of this new image of India, I was saddened that even this year nothing was done to try and remove these slums from India. What was most shocking is what happened the day after Slumdog Millionaire swept the Oscars. The next day, the big budget sops got announced – a whopping figure of Rs 30,000 crores for the Indian rich in the form of reduction of service taxes etc. it made me really sad to see that while the world has a new outlook for India, the fools in the Indian media failed to rub it into the minds of our people; and our politicians – visionless as ever – remained shamelessly uncommitted in the wake of this newfound status (read shameful status). A 300 square feet two-room flat with a dignified toilet and kitchen costs anything between Rs 65,000 to Rs 1,00,000 to construct in a basic manner. And given the fact that 25% out of the 30 crore people living in cities live in slums, India needs 1.5 crore such flats (assuming that, on an average, these 7.5 crore slum dwelling families have 5 members each) to become free of any slums and to give these people dignity of existence. This, in effect, means that all the government has to do is plan a Rs 1,50,000 crore budget for the same or Rs 30,000 crores per year for five years! Instead of giving away these meaningless and visionless sops, the government would have done well to declare that it would spend Rs 30,000 crores per year in the next five years to remove all slums from India so that there can no more be any new slumdog millionaires made on India. In fact, as an economist, I find the sops such a foolish act in the middle of this slowdown. At this time, we require jobs to be created, investments to be made; and these sops will do neither. A slum relocation programme would have meant investments to job creation to dignity to the people who we keep in slums like dogs.

Till the time we have a more committed, educated media and a political class, we will remain beach bum fools and fatuously gloat in our change of panhandler status... from that of the land of snake charmers and elephants to the land of shit-swimming slumdogs! Jai ho!!!

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