Watching films about India in an audience with a limited knowledge about the country can be a bittersweet experience. On the one hand, I am thankful for the pedagogic opportunity to demystify the complexity of life in India as I have known and lived it. On the other hand it has always been a challenge to truthfully answer questions like “But why is it like this?” without wanting to point a finger right back at the inquisitor and saying, “Well, it’s because of you!”
India was a prosperous, if imperfect, country before the Danes, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the French, and finally the Brits colonized it for several centuries, looting its resources for self-gain, enslaving its people, and gutting its psyche of any hope of redemption. Is it any wonder that, a mere sixty-five years since independence, Indians still suffer from a deep-seated paranoia of being subjugated to inhumanity? Is it not possible, therefore, that part of every Indian’s DNA is an irrational fear of losing everything they hold dear? A fear that can, at times, be assuaged only by a winner takes all mentality even when the “loser” is a fellow Indian?
And now we have the 21st century version of colonialism, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Globalization is supposed to foster international integration, a democratic exchange of world views, ideas, products, and culture. Globalization has increased international trade between India and the United States and Western Europe. But it has also resulted in multinational corporations setting up shop in India to harvest its inexpensive personnel power in technology, automobile, pharmaceutical, and apparel industries. Often these corporations establish mini-cities around their local headquarters, outfitted with a non-stop supply of electricity, running water, and public transportation while, just outside these walls, Indian society continues to fall into decrepitude due to a growing rift between the haves and have-nots. And what do Americans get through this “international integration” besides, of course, the very products made by Indian personnel in these industries cheaply sold in the U.S.? More yoga studios and packaged Indian food easily available at your local grocery store. Does this not then make questions like “But why is it like this?” completely ridiculous and exasperating to answer?
‘The Revolutionary Optimists’ and ‘Not Today’ are well-meaning films that try to get a closer look at this rift between the haves and the have-nots but entirely miss the point of why is India like this in today’s globalized economy.
‘The Revolutionary Optimists’is an endearing documentary about one man’s crusade to open and operate a liberal arts and sciences school in the least desirable part of a slum colony just outside the city of Kolkata and how, encouraged and inspired by this incredible teacher, several kids from the school band together to lobby the local, state, and national government to equip this colony of 9,000 residents with the most basic of services they lack: running water.
The makers of this documentary – that took over three years to film and edit – have taken great pains to present life as it is in this slum colony through an objective lens. The kids are not the subject of pity more than they are innovative thinkers and problem solvers, with boundless energy and a single-minded focus on the final result: to improve the lives of everyone in their community. Still, it ignores the larger political context of “why is it like this” in the first place and therefore presumes that this level of hopeless poverty – no matter what its roots – is something we expect to see in a movie about India. Thank you, Slumdog Millionaire.
‘Not Today’ takes us into the urban underbelly of India and its thriving sex trade industry where girls as young as seven are sold into prostitution. Caden, a spoiled, rich American youth, goes to India on a holiday with his equally rich and spoiled friends and encounters Kiran and his daughter Annika begging for food and money on the streets of Hyderabad. Caden’s initial reaction of indifference changes to concern and, ultimately, personal responsibility as he and Kiran set out to find Annika who has been sold into prostitution.
The film has an embarrassingly clumsy start but finds its confidence once the action shifts to India. Cody Longo as Caden and an amazingly subtle Walid Amini as Kiran try hard to flesh out badly written characters but ‘Not Today’ sinks under the weight of its maudlin histrionics and an even more clumsy presentation of the role of God and faith as Caden tries to make sense out of a country where little kids can become objects of sexual gratification.
Perhaps Caden – and if Caden is supposed to be an analog for ignorant Americans – would be better served by focusing on the facts:
· Nearly 25% of U.S. children are physically and sexually abused (2011 statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families).
· The global market of child trafficking is over $12 billion a year with over 1.2 million child victims (UNICEF). However, in the United States alone, as many as 2.8 million children run away each year and within 48 hours, one-third of these children are lured or recruited into the underground world of prostitution and pornography (The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children).
· An estimated 14,500 – 17,500 foreign nationals are trafficked into the United States each year. The number of U.S. citizens trafficked within the country is even higher, with an estimated 300,000 American children at risk for trafficking into the sex industry. Many of the biggest trafficking consumers are developed nations (U.S. Department of Justice).
· Child pornography is one of the fastest growing crimes in the United States right now. Nationally, there has been a 2500% increase in arrests in 10 years (FBI).
National poverty statistics are not any less flattering. The official poverty measure is published by the United States Census Bureau and shows that:
· In 2010, 46.9 million people were in poverty, up from 37.3 million in 2007 — the fourth consecutive annual increase in the number of people in poverty. This is the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty rates have been published.
· The 2010 poverty rate for Hispanics was 26.6 percent, for Blacks 27.4 percent.
· In 2010, the poverty rate increased for children under age 18 from 20.7 percent to 22.0 percent.
· 20.5 million Americans live in extreme poverty. This means their family’s cash income is less than half of the poverty line, or about $10,000 a year for a family of four.
I do not condone or excuse the way women are perceived and treated in India. I have nothing but disdain for anyone who has sex with a child, paid or otherwise. I stand with millions of people worldwide – and with many Indians themselves – who feel shock and remorse at the condition of people living in abject poverty in India. Films like ‘The Revolutionary Optimists’ and ‘Not Today’ are commendable in their efforts to raise awareness and help the most needy. Still, as the late, great Michael Jackson said, let’s start with the man in the mirror. For every movie about poverty, hopelessness, and child abuse in India, I would like to see a movie about poverty, hopelessness, and child abuse in the greatest and wealthiest nation in the world. Otherwise what’s next? Shaking our heads in pity at why Afghanistan and Iraq are the way they are, conveniently forgetting that we had at least some role to play in it?