India through the eyes of Hollywood

The “blogosphere” is abuzz with reviews and commentary about the academy award winning documentary, “Born into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids”“. I haven’t yet seen the movie myself, but have been reading about it and the directors on various websites.

I am not going to say so much about the movie (mainly because I haven’t seen it yet) as about how I think there is a disbalance in the media-portrayal of India and the reality. Now, I am not saying that there is no poverty in India, or that there are no Red Light districts in this country, or that there is no bureaucratic red tape. It is all there, and it is also true that we need drastically strong political will and external/internal help to make India a truly developed country. I am not debating that.

How many Hollywood flicks have you seen that have shown the real India? The India that has the world’s most fascinating socio-economic ecosystem. The India that has age old healing techniques along with snake charmers and elephants. I do not remember any. Even the last season of CBS’ “The Amazing Race” had contestants making way through the most poor areas of Indian cities. I was surprised that during their 2 episode leg in the city of Lucknow, India, the crew totally abstained from showing the historical vignette of the city. Instead, I sat there watching unusually crowded localities, slums, cows and hungry surprised kids. Now, I am not saying that we need to hide the poverty, but that is the unique aspect of India. We have the rich and the poor co-exist in a totally symbiotic manner. Name me one major US city that does not have a ghetto.

Some people would argue that we shoudn’t shy from our poverty and vices. I don’t understand where this comes from. If we really wanted the world to see only our good side, we would do what most anarchies have done. We would systematically censor the media, strictly scrutinize the production of independent movies, and go as far as rejecting foreign aid towards some of the “upliftment” projects. We don’t do any of that. Anyone is free to come to our country and do what they want. India probably has some of the world’s best NGO organizations in the world. Years ago, I was at the Atomium in Brussels. They had a showcase on poverty and hunger, and guess what, India was the star attraction. I would have had no objections with this if they had cared to include some good things about India in other showcases.

What is the notion that most “non-Indians” have in their mind about India? Yes, that nothing can be done about this country, there is poverty everywhere, children ride elephants to school, and we don’t shower. How is that helping India’s growth? How is that helping an average Indian’s esteem when he goes out to other countries as probably one of the hardest working people there?

Is nothing being done in our country about improving the lot? I fail to agree, and I am not even being overly nationalist when I say that. A lot of people in these “conditions” actually do not want anything to be changed. It is really hard. Even then, I have to ask, have you really never read about efforts by Indians in India to eradicate poverty, illiteracy, and other social vices? I also have to ask people who saw this movie if it actually included work/effort being put in by the local government/NGOs?

Now, to answer my friend Vel‘s questions:

1. So what if she focuses on the bad things ?
There is nothing wrong in focussing on the bad things, but my gripe is with over-using examples of the bad conditions to fortify the age-old stereotypes prevalent in the Western world about India. There is a lot of good in this country. How many downtrodden poor Indians have you met that say they consider it a bane to be in Hindustan?

2. Why are Indians so defensive ?
I don’t think anyone has tried to defend poverty, corruption, and brothels. But, I do believe that we need to defend our society and national pride from perpetual efforts to downplay it as an ever-stagnant third world country. We need to defend the honor of people that are wasting their lives working in the country without any personal resources to make it a better place.

3. Why are we analyzing Ms. Briski’s motivation ?
It is human nature. I also think that most people want to really know what happened to the 7-8 kids she actually helped. I can assure you that a lot is being done by people in India, but they don’t get as much attention. What’s their motivation?

4. Should the world see our poverty and squalor ?
I don’t think we need to advertise it. I think the world should see how we are trying to tackle all these vices domestically as well as with their help, and how we have transformed our society from elephant jockeys to astronauts. The world needs to see a promising picture of the future of our country, not something which has the intention of putting us back by 50 years.

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