Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Underbelly

"...though because it is a movie, it misses one thing that truly distinguishes Mumbai, the way it smells: part drying fish, part human waste."

Let me begin with a confession -- I have neither read Arvind Adiga's Booker winning book -- The White Tiger (yet) - nor have I seen (yet) Slumdog Millionaire which seems to be doing fairly well in the awards category. But it is the above quote from Somini Sengupta's review of the movie that exasperated me enough to write this post.

Much has been written about these two events -- and a lot of it has been predictable. While not denying the considerable literary merit of both the book and the movie, many Indian reviewers, many of them not particularly jingoistic, have pointed out that the so-called seamier underbelly of India's rise, the filth and squalor, are themes that seem to resonate more with Western audiences, or at least with Western critics. I normally do not hold with such views. A lot of it has often to do with most Indians' very prickly reaction to any criticism of their country, their society and their way of life. We are mostly intolerant of any view that punctures the feel-good factor of the so-called India Rising campaign, notwithstanding the fact that the equivalent India Shining campaign of the previous Government came a cropper in no uncertain terms.

However, I cannot help but feel that there is some truth in the assertion that poverty and squalor sells better in the West than prosperity. This is, of course, a slightly cliched view (it was used in the past even to run down the international acclaim of Satyajit Ray's movies, who, so it was claimed, sold India's poverty to the West - an outrageous claim, by any standards), but clearly it has a germ of truth particularly in a contemporary context. The quote I began this post with bolsters my firm belief that any movie or book that confirms certain people's comfortably condescending view of the country, is clearly on the road to success. (Is it not outrageous that that the reviewer, (of clear Indian origin from the name) is actually unhappy that the filth and squalor in the movie is not sufficiently representative of the real India -- or at least of the real Mumbai?) This is particularly true now when India's (and China's) growth rates coupled with the poor condition of the economy in many Western countries have threatened at least the economic dominance of many of these states. India has still a long way to go, in my opinion, before this growth rate becomes sufficiently inclusive to start on the path to becoming a developed country. But that does not stop the West from worrying about these growing economies and what it will do to their consumption patterns and their way of life.

The issue has a resonance not just in books and movies. The glee with which the Western press has pounced on the fact that one of India's top IT companies Satyam has fallen flat on its face, is clearly indicative of this schadenfreude factor. After all, it shows that the mighty Indian IT industry is not as invincible as it was believed to be. (This is not confined to India alone...the Chinese milk scandal has occupied many many columns of the Western press, far in excess of what a similar scandal in their own country would occupy).

As Jug Suraiya mentions in one of his Times of India articles, perhaps we could grab this new opportunity that has come our way -- instead of the slogan Mera Bharat Mahan let us propagate the slogan Mera Bhikari Mahan.


Abhinav said...

Very Rightly Said , I have read The White tiger and have also seen the movie.there are very good things about India which western people don't explore.

AMOK said...

Sire -- thanks for touching upon this point which was a point of recent discussion for me also. It is absolutely true that the squalor themes resonate more with persons NOT in embroiled in the squalor. With the news media today, failure is much more important than success. Failure of "others" is even more important - it reinforces "our system is better than their system" and perpetrates the psychology of fear (read defense) and therefore eyeballs. During the coverage of Mumbai events, "26/11", on US media, for example, reportedly there were many commercials. During "9/11" there were none. A friend said there was absolutely no gloating in India as the US financial system wobbled. Of course not -- or was there?

gaddeswarup said...

I am not sure about this. Some movies I saw in the last few years like "Monsoon Wedding" are not about squalor and filth. Many popular novels by Vikram Seth ( I have not read them, but I read Adiga's book which is readable but not very interesting) and others too do not seem to fit the bill. May be, looking at a sample of successful (in the west) movies and books might provide some insights. My sample is very small.

Rahul Basu said...

gaddeswarup: My comments, as you will see in my post refers more to Western critics than the public. I am surprised for example that someone like Amitav Ghosh has never received a major award whereas someone like Adiga does (or Kiran Desai who I think is incredibly mediocre). Another noteworthy example is Pankaj Mishra who has made it to the pages of the New York Review of Books, the New York Times and so on based mainly on the image that he has created of a largely lawless and amoral society and government in India. India's human rights record, particularly in Kashmir is shameful, but Mishra has gotten away by accusing the Army and the paramilitary forces of actually engineering some of the large scale massacres (as in Chitisinghpura) without providing a shred of evidence till today. Such tendentious reporting by a journalist about Western Governments would not make it to the mainstream print media without substantial evidence.

Shamashis said...


I am not sure that it is entirely about failure being more important than success. People are attracted towards a lot of things that are uncommon and surprising. Extreme poverty, the Taj Mahal and colourful weddings are something Westerners are not used to and maybe that's why these themes resonate with them.

Regarding the comment on media coverage of terror attacks, I don't find anything surprising. On 9/11, their own country had been attacked and quite naturally they would report 9/11 in more detail than the Mumbai attacks.