Monday, February 23, 2009

The White Tiger, Slumdog Millionaire - Insights of the Colonized

I have not yet watched Slumdog Millionaire - but I am going to and think I will enjoy it.
But the movie has ignited a very lively debate that has gone on in the internet, print and in television - does the movie reflect a real India? Does the movie deserve an Oscar? One of the most vexing questions has been this - do movies that portray India poorly get noticed more in the West and corner awards? Amitabh Bachan wrote a blog about it, then retracted it - whatever.
If you read the internet forums, people are split right down the middle on this one - people point out that such movies are made with the idea of getting awards. I am not sure that Danny Boyle had the Oscars in mind. Lots of people are outraged by the stark shots of Dharavi. Meanwhile an equal number say that India's poor suffer from underexposure - not over exposure. This argument quickly becomes political - is India developing or not? Why do western filmmakers always show an India that is underdeveloped?

Shyam Benegal perhaps gave the best explanation - he said that Danny Boyle was not Indian and the movie is his creative expression. Thus his creative expressions can only show India as he sees it (along with his crew). Nothing wrong with that - same thing happens if an Indian makes a movie about Italy.

The Colonized

But I think there is an underlying issue here - it is obvious that we, Indians care a lot about how our country and culture APPEARS abroad. Particularly in the West. The most important reason why this happens is because we were a former colony of Britain. Colonized and Oppressed races do have a tendency to prove themselves before thir former "masters". I have seen a very similar tendency among African-Americans in the USA.
Our textbooks and education is full of the point of view of an outsider looking in. Subash Ghai said the most happiest he felt was when "700 white people applauded Taal in Chicago". Note that he specifically said white people, not Americans or even non-Indians. Our nation's elite, in particular, are highly self-conscious. Amitabh Bachan has been attacking Satyajit Ray for a long time "for showing India under a bad light". This is why the most minor reference to India by Obama or Bush or Clinton transports our media to orgasm.
Media stars refer to "India arriving on the world stage" again and again. We want to be a super-power, not because the word has any meaning; but because then we will get equal respect. Get noticed somehow. We will model our award shows on their award shows; we will model our economy on theirs; we will show - somehow - that we are no different.
It is this high value we place on Western opinion - while simultaneously ignoring native wisdom, that makes us angry when "India is shown in a poor light". We think the POINT of the movie is to show a fallen India. But, of course, that is not the point of the movie. The story, the plot, is the pont of the movie - let us not invent any further.
I think this is a very natural reaction of colonized peoples - but it has to be overcome. A little self-esteem is what we need.

Meanwhile, The Colonizers are not free of problems of their own. Let me explain with an issue I have been facing for some time.
I have tried reading English novels by Indian authors in the recent past. I read Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children" when I was much younger, and I liked it. In the last five years, I buy English novels by Indian authors from time to time and always abandon them in the middle.
What bothers me about them? Why can't I read and enjoy novels by Indian English authors? I have tried repeatedly - The Inheritance of Loss, White Tiger, The Namesake - all of them. I am not able to even complete them - why is that?
Then I read Tamil writer Jayamohan's interview to A.Muthulingam in the Tamil literary magazine, Kalachuvadu and it made sense. The question to Jayamohan was about marketing his books to an international audience. Jayamohan said (I am paraphrasing here) that a Western audience (which is where the money is) is not interested in most Indian literature. They look to Indian books and movies for "knowledge" - that is, for learning about an alien culture. They are not really interested in the philosphical or literary beauty of the work - because they think they get enough of that from their literature.
This is a key idea and I agree. Most discussions about Slumdog or White Tiger with Americans (that I have had) revolve around whether the incidents narrated happen or can happen. But that is NOT the question they would ask when watching an American movie. While a movie like "The Dark Knight" is watched assuming its internal coherence, an Indian book or movie is automatically associated with reality - it is not read as a literary work but as a tour guide.
That tour-guidishness is, of course, a need that many Indian authors in English satisfy. Mind you, I think they are pretty good literary writers, but subconsciously they are not addressing "Us".
For example, Arvind Adiga's White Tiger narrative is in first person, as a letter written to the Chinese leader. By adopting this narrative, Mr.Adiga has conveniently taken the point of view of an Indian explaining his country to a foreigner - which is, of course, exactly what he is assuming his audience are. The little explanations the narrator offers about India to the visting leader, are, thus, directed from the writer to his Western reader.
That puts me off, because Arvind Adiga did not intend me as the reader. Again, I am not saying the book is bad - it is just not intended for me to read. It is a tour guide for British and American reading public.
This is why I am not able to complete the Namesake, and the Inheritance of Loss. I am bewildered by their tone and subject matter. There are also other reasons - Anita Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri and Arvind Adiga are themselves cross-cultural children. They are dealing internally with the immigrant experience and a need to explore their home country. They end up writing something that fails to connect with me.
I do not see the same tone in other foreign works - Orhan Pamuk writes from Turkey; Jose Saramago from Portugal. Their works are translated into English and they read well. It must be the peculiarity of colonization and the unique cross-cultural situation of Indian elite writers that causes this disconnect with their own countrymen (I think Arundhati Roy has escaped this. Her writing is still interesting).
As a result, the Colonizers read a version that is tailor made for them. Authentic and rich literary work in Indian regional languages rarely make it outside and never make it popular. Their loss - I think we gain more by cultural osmosis.

This blog post was based on a internet chat I had with my American friend, John (name changed). I have the actual chat text below, if it helps clarify what my thinking is.

Ramiah says:
hey u busy?
John says:
what's up
Ramiah says:
well I thought about what u said about the movie - here is the core problem
I think when you talk about this movie and others and when I discuss them with you
the basic question is always about if these things happen or not
but that is not a question that you ask of all movies
which means that writer was right
when you watch Indian movies or read Indian lit
you think about what you can learn about the country from that movie or book
but of course literature and movies are not always about learning geography or economics
they are about actual people and their emotions and their philosphies
and the problem is the movies you watch and observe about India caricature all of that
so that they can bring you snippets of an alien life successfully
these movies and books are fine
don't get me wrong
but they are very miniscule part of what life in India and literature in India comprises
my specific point is that u don't watch an Indian movie the same way u watch an American movie
and these movies are tailor made for u
and so are the books
John says:
I disagree - it depends on the subject matter
Ramiah says:
this is why I find it very difficul to read english books by Indian authors
because they are not "indian" literature
they are tailor made for ur consumption
John says:
if the movie is about a poor kid growing up in Harlem then the environment is going to be a big part of the movie's focus
Ramiah says:
yes but the way you watch it is different - because you culturally "get" Harlem
John says:
the more 'foreign' the context the more focus it gets
Ramiah says:
and not India
John says:
dude - you think white people 'get' harlem?
Ramiah says:
John says:
try to get them to go there
Ramiah says:
u get Harlem the same way I get the Dharavi slum in Mumbai
it is a part of our cultural consiousness
we may not go there
but we most defintely "get" it

Pedestrian Rights - It Is My Road Too

I read a recent article in The Hindu titled thus: Poor Patronage for Subways, Foot Overbridges. Please read it for a better perspective on this blog.

The overall attitude of our police officers and citizens with vehicles is that in Chennai (and in India) pedestrian "discipline" is the major cause of accidents involving pedestrians. I was travelling in a car near Thiruvanmiyur. We entered a narrow lane with teashops and houses on either side. A person crossed the street to a teashop, in front of our car. One of the guys with me said , "walks as if it is his father's road". You hear this kind of comments from educated people all the time.
The other day I saw a person crossing a junction talking on the cellphone. A lady stopped her scooter just before her and yelled at her for using the cellphone.
During the rains, the road near my home is flooded on one side. Pedestrians have to walk in the middle of the road to avoid stepping in the putrid water. Car drivers lunge at them, honk at them and generally try to make the pedestrians run for cover.
We know all of this, it happens before us, and there is no reasonable framework to address this.
The reason is that police officers and the general public have completely bought into the view that a road belongs to cars and motorcyclists. Wherever that road may be, whatever the circumstance.
I have written in detail about the plight of pedestrians in Rajiv Gandhi road (OMR) : one of the complaints of the guy in the car (in above article) is that he has to "apply sudden breaks in his car in the OMR". The OMR is a straight road, and the speed limit is 40km/h. If you had to apply sudden brakes, it means a suicidal maniac ran in front of your car.
But that is the picture they present - that pedestrians are somehow leisurely strolling across "their" roads. Anyone who walks in any of these roads would know that the opposite is true.
I think the core problem is that there is no awareness of what rights a pedestrian has - and hence the whatever pedestrians do, they are blamed for accidents.

List of Pedestrian Rights
I will suggest below the following set of Pedestrian Rights - I know these may not be followed, but we have to make an effort:
1. In a traffic signal with no "walk" signals (for pedestrians), walkers have right of way to cross the road on a green signal. Turning vehicles have to stop for pedestrians.

2. In a road or alley or street, if there is no pedestrian sidewalks, (or if there IS a pedestrian sidewalk and it is unpassable), then 15% of the road width on either side belongs to pedestrians. Cars should NOT park on this zone.

3. If a pedestrian set foot on a pedestrian crossing, traffic SHOULD stop until they cross. Pedestrian crossings are meant to be that way - in practice noone respects them.

4. In a school zone or in residential roads, pedestrians have right of way across at any point.

5. In roads that pass through suburban districts or office districts, medians should be low and pelican signals (where a pedestrian can press a button for a signal) should be available in frequent intervals.


Why are such rules very difficult to enforce in our roads? There are practical reasons why people find it difficult to call shots or fight for their rights in plenty of other situations.
But, after observing traffic violators for some time, I have noticed this - most people are not rogues. Most people violate laws because noone teaches them the laws.
This is, of course, not conventional wisdom - I have heard people blame Regional Transport Offices (RTOs) for issuing licenses indiscriminately. But the core problem is NOT that people do not follow know how to drive. I have been through the driving license classes and here is the core problem - there is NO Training or Education in RTOs.
That is, RTOs reserve the right to issue licenses - but there is no information supplied by them about a list of traffic rules to follow. In the United States and in most developed countries, getting a driving license is a two-step process. First, you have to get a book, read it, and then clear a written test. Only after the written test do you get the Learner's License. After that you take driving lessons.

The FIRST step is learning traffic rules and learning (fundamentally) that driving is a social act and it has certain responsibilities.
By focussing instead on driving as simple as learning to turn the steering and manage the gears, RTOs have failed their purpose.

If, such a educational system exists, then it is easy to take the list of pedestrian rights and push them as part of the syllabus.
Pedestrian discipline is NOT the problem; Jaywalking is NOT the problem - the problem is driver attitudes and our torturous roads.