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.