A Year in India

Understanding India’s Poverty
January 28, 2009, 5:15 pm
Filed under: Culture | Tags: ,

Esha, one of the teachers I work with, recently made a film about migrant construction workers’ lives in Bangalore.  These workers are making extremely low wages, living in temporary slums, and moving from place to place based on where they can find work.  After watching the film, I had a few questions: Are the workers angry about their situation?  Do they feel they’re facing injustices or being deprived of basic human rights?

Esha’s answer was a simple “no.”  But he went on to explain that this “no” was meant to satisfy my American perspective, one that clearly attaches poverty to sadness.  In India, things aren’t so clear-cut.

Here are some thoughts Esha had in response to my questions:

  • India’s caste system makes it so difficult for impoverished people to move “up” that they feel there’s no point in trying
  • A majority of India’s population lives on very little, so people have adjusted to a non-money-centric lifestyle
  • Indians have a different “mental makeup” than Americans
  • These migrant workers separate their frustrations at “the system” from their day-to-day, personal mindsets
  • Many poor people don’t know what it means to be wealthy; money is a dream so far away that it’s intangible (think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, pictured below)
  • If people are sad about their situation, they might cover it up; Indians tend to place more value on the community’s well-being than individuals’ emotions
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

It’s frustrating to know that, as an outsider, I may never be able to fully wrap my head around the Indian context that defines the attitudes of these workers.  The best I can do is listen to people like Esha, observe my surroundings, and read as much as I can about India.

Esha and I are brainstorming ways to make a film addressing this gap between the American perspective and the realities of Indian poverty.  We’ll begin tomorrow by meeting with a friend of Esha’s who heads up Action Aid India in Karnataka …


Slumdog Millionaire Thoughts
January 26, 2009, 4:16 pm
Filed under: Culture | Tags: , ,

“In the end, what gives me reluctant pause about this bright,
cheery, hard-to-resist movie is that its joyfulness feels more
like a filmmaker’s calculation than an honest cry from the
heart about the human spirit (or, better yet, a moral tale).”
-New York Times movie reviewer Manohla Dargis

Mumbai slum residents protesting against "Slumdog Millionaire"

Mumbai slum residents protesting against "Slumdog Millionaire"

Slumdog Millionaire buzz has been in the air for the past few weeks, both in the US and here in India.  I found the film’s storyline entertaining (if a bit cheesy), its cinematography energetic, its actors solid, and its soundtrack innovative.

Overall, though, I didn’t think the film was as phenomenal as its hype promised.  Does the movie represent a surface-level American fascination with Indian poverty?  Will Americans now take its neat packaging as their central window into a far more complex country?  What is the point of glamorizing slum life to this extent?  Does the film misrepresent slum dwellers’ lives in other ways?  Would it have been a very different movie had it been made by an Indian?  (It says something that director Danny Boyle had never been to India prior to shooting the film.)

These nagging questions caution me against calling Slumdog Millionaire a defining film about Indian slum culture.  Mumbai slum dwellers themselves have taken issue with the film, protesting its derogatory title: “I am poor, but don’t call me a slumdog,” said one such slum resident.  A couple social activists are even going so far as to file a lawsuit against the film, citing its overly negative depiction of slum life.

I actually find these protestors’ concerns refreshing.  Far too often, I notice Indian film audiences brushing off offensive film content.  (Not once have I heard debate over the portrayal of women in Bollywood films, for example.)  This kind of healthy critique of popular culture will help us understand our relationship to the media and its representations of us.

Indie Music in India
January 9, 2009, 9:13 am
Filed under: Music | Tags: ,

An indie band is touring India! An unusual occurrence. Makes me happy. Article.

Black Lips

“Starting Over,” by Black Lips: [Audio https://meerasinha.files.wordpress.com/2009/01/blacklips-startingover.mp3%5D

Home for the Holidays
January 5, 2009, 11:35 pm
Filed under: Travel | Tags: , , ,

Highlights of my recent trip home to Chicago, in no particular order:

Family: Good conversation, home-cooked food, and quality time together.  It was especially exciting to share my India experiences with my Kannadiga grandparents, who both lived in Bangalore years ago.

Christmas Dinner

Christmas dinner with the family

Movies: See “Milk.” Sean Penn is incredible, as is the story.

New Year’s Eve: Particularly memorable was twirling around to “Young Folks” on our makeshift paper-napkin dance floor.

Chicago's biggest Kanye fans on NYE

Chicago's biggest Kanye fans on NYE

New Year’s Day: CBA + bad movies + my favorite people = happy

Food: I can’t even count how many Italian restaurants I frequented. Deeeelish.

My mom & me at Follia

My mom & me at Follia

Long plane rides: 30+ hours in flight (paired with terrible movie choices – yes, I watched “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2” … twice) gave me ample time to rediscover old songs I love on my iPod.  Fitting for the moment: “Another Traveling Song,” by Bright Eyes.

… And now, back in Bangalore, I’m surrounded by that inexplicable India smell, the amazing warm weather, the reckless driving, the Muslim prayer songs streaming in my apartment window, the cows sauntering down the middle of the street.  What drew me back in the most, though, was the customs official who greeted me at the airport.  In typical India-style, he scolded me for having an old visa stapled into my passport: “You might be fined for this staple,” he grumbled, and then motioned for me to continue on past him.  Though it was harder than expected to leave Chicago, it’s good to be back.