Articles of NRI relevance

May 27, 2004

Seeking Diaspora input for a Healthy India

Some time ago a friend of mine, a German journalist, called me and said he was visiting Bangalore on an assignment. When I asked him what he would be doing here, he said he was making a programme on India's IT success story and how it could be used as a model for other developing countries. My friend had never been to India before and since I was in Bangalore at the time, he asked me if I would accompany him on some of the filming. I told him I'd be happy to do so.

My friend duly arrived with his team consisting of a camera-man and an assistant. He didn't really need me for the interviews that he had set up with a Bangalore IT company, who handled all the arrangements. But after that, the camera-man asked me if he could get some pictures of Bangalore's skyline. I wondered where we could get some good shots from a high level, and thought of Lalbagh, one of Bangalore's big gardens. The park, which is already on a relatively high region, has a small hill from which you can get a pretty decent view of Bangalore.

So we got into the car and went to Lalbagh. I was a little apprehensive because we would no doubt attract attention - we had a large TV camera with us and of course, there were foreigners in the group. More than anything, even though my friend and his team had proper journalist visas, I feared some kind of official harassment. Soon after we got to the top of the hill, my worst fear appeared to materialise. Although there were the inevitable onlookers, a policeman nearby soon sauntered over to us. But he asked very politely, and I could sense it was only idle curiosity, what we were filming. I told him that we were shooting Bangalore's skyline, and after that he just as casually sauntered off. I heaved a sigh of relief.

After we finished filming at Lalbagh, my friend asked me if he knew of a place that would contrast the western-style high-tech office buildings he had seen. I immediately thought of KG (Kempe Gowda) Road that leads up to the city's main bus and railway stations. The road is full of everything - cars, two-wheelers, buses, street vendors, movie theatres, shops, everything. But there was another place I knew my friend would like to film even more - the city market. He wanted to film something that was not hi-tech because he wanted to show a contrast, to prove that in the midst of a sea of apparent low-tech, India had produced world class technology.

For a moment I was in two minds. KG road would look much better on TV than the city market with its mess and chaos, and I didn't want Bangalore or India to be shown in poor light. But I knew my friend would prefer the market had he known about it. However, being a complete stranger to Bangalore and India, he would obviously go wherever I took him. So I decided to take him to KG road. But in an instant, I changed my mind and told the cab driver to take us to the market.

When we arrived, it was the usual market scene - there were masses of people, loud vendors, colourful spices, lazy cows, street urchins and overflowing garbage; maddening traffic and pollution rounded off the scene. The camera-man began work, and soon we were surrounded by curious and cheerful vegetable vendors. Some of them even shooed off the urchins who were trying to get their hands on the camera. But everyone posed enthusiastically and waved at the camera. Again, I noticed policemen in the area but they gave us a bored, cursory glance and didn't bother us. One traffic cop even told bystanders to move along as they were blocking oncoming traffic. My fear of being hassled subsided. Then the trouble started.

An obviously educated middle-class man in his 40s strode up to us, looked at the camera-man and shouted angrily, clearly intent on disrupting proceedings: "What are you fellows filming?".he yelled fluently in English. My German friend answered very calmly: "We're filming the market. Who are you?" Being used to this kind of harassment from officials in other countries, my friend was prepared for intrusions like this one. The man didn't say who he was, and it soon became obvious that he wasn't an official of any sort. He suddenly spotted me in the background and screamed, "It's because of Indians like you that our country has such a bad name. You let these foreigners film these vendors, urchins and dirty streets and all bad things about India and it's no wonder we're seen as a third-class country."

I tried telling him why the programme was being made, that it was about India's IT success, but he was in no mood to listen. He continued abusing us. The vendors were puzzled at what was going on. "Is he from the government?", one of them asked. No, I told him. Why is he angry then, asked the vendor. He doesn't want you to be filmed because it doesn't look good on TV, I said. The vendor was still puzzled. After all as far as he was concerned, this was his office and he was doing honest work. He just couldn't understand why someone would be angry at that, especially when he himself was only too happy being filmed. All this time, the angry man continued protesting, but we ignored him. Seeing that the cops from the nearby police station weren't complaining either, he left in a huff.

It's a small but telling incident. In a matter of seconds, I truly understood what censorship meant. For a brief moment before I changed my mind, I had also succumbed to its temptation. The educated man was also trying to censor what was going on. When our governments try to do it, we scream about our democratic rights. But we ourselves have a censor lurking within us.

It's not only about censorship. It's the arrogance of our mentality that says vegetable vendors and street urchins are dirt and should not be shown on TV. Paradoxically, it is also the greatest sign of our inferiority complex - that we need to brush off ground realities so that the images are clean and neat before they are presented before a foreign audience.

True, NRIs have especially suffered for the lop-sided view abroad of India as nothing but a poor country. We encounter racism and superior airs from those who think of India as a famine stricken relic of the past. But conversely, why do we have this image of the west as very rich and superior? As NRIs, we know that poverty and un-livable hell-holes also exist in the West. We know there are no pots of gold. We know life is no cake-walk there. Why do we not know all this before we leave our own shores?

The answer is simple. Indian news channels and newspapers can't be bothered to get some real news from abroad - they don't want to do the hard work of going to poor, violent and dangerous areas of the rich countries and report from there. Forget dangerous areas - Indian reporters wouldn't even venture into a street market abroad. It's just not glamorous enough. They'd just rather sit in serene surroundings and attend press conferences in posh hotels of big cities, rather than getting onto the street and reporting some real news.

Coming back to our angry man at the market, censorship is not the answer. In fact, by censorship, we will be damaging the one thing that all Indians are proud of: freedom and democracy. India's media need to do the same thing that western journalists do - report the poverty and deprivation in those countries so that audiences in India are provided with a balanced picture. Maybe then we won't be so angry when western TV carries pictures of Indian poverty - because we know that the reverse exists too.

Chetan Dhruve in Bangalore

The views of this column are the author's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of NRI Online.

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