The arts tackle topics that Indian populists are uncomfortable with

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by Hans Dembowski

Pan Nalin, Arundhati Roy, western attention and real India

My colleague Sheila Mysorekar recommended the movie Angry Indian Goddesses, so I went to see it recently. It is a good film, and it is worth considering to what extent it matters what target group the director had in mind.

Sheila’s review is on our website, so I won’t discuss the film’s content here. Its message is basically feminist, condemning sexual abuse, celebrating women’s individuality and promoting their freedom to chose how to live and whom to love.

The director was Pan Nalin. He surely knows that these topics resonate with India’s young urban generation. At the same time, the idea of divorce and even more lesbianism as a legitimate lifestyle must still seem very bewildering in India’s millions of villages. To be honest, in Germany, the USA and other G7 nations, people tend to be more open minded about gender issues in urban agglomerations than in the conservative countryside too.  

In any case, feminist ideas are anathema to India’s populist Hindu chauvinists. Whether they live in cities or villages, they pretend that there is such a thing as a normal and correct Indian lifestyle that is defined by traditions and appreciated by every good Indian. These people are keen on fighting any western influence, which they consider decadent.

They know, of course, that some of the issues tackled in the film, especially rape, are of real concern, and that makes them even more eager to discredit the entire piece of art. One way of responding to Palin’s movie is therefore to claim that it is meant for decadent western viewers and must therefore not be taken seriously.

This kind of argument rings a bell. Some Indian intellectuals who are not at all in thrall to the populists like to argue that Indian artists should work to entertain and enlighten Indian masses, not cater to the lucrative western market. They certainly have a point when they complain that some Indians in the arts are cashing in by portraying India in an exotic way that fascinates westerners but has little relevance in India.

Success in the west, however, does not by definition mean that a work of Indian art has no merit. Back in the 1990s, an Indian colleague told me she found it bizarre that Arundhati Roy, the bestselling novelist and essayist, would wear jeans in Delhi, but put on a sari to collect the Booker prize in London. Aseema, my colleague, felt that wearing jeans in India was disrespectful of Indian culture, but perfectly acceptable in the west. (Aseema herself consistently wore traditional clothes in Calcutta.) In this perspective, Arundhati Roy was flirting with European men’s attraction to Asian  women by wearing traditional clothes in Britain, probably in the hope of selling even more books.

I disagreed. I still think that the author’s fashion choice in London was intended to show that she identified with India, whereas her westernised Delhi style indicated that she disagreed with narrow-minded tradition.

In my eyes, there was nothing wrong with the novelist’s attitude, and Aseema saw my point. At the same time, I saw hers. As a progressive economist, she wanted India to change, but not by following the destructive model of western consumerism and corporate power. In this line of thinking, respect for traditional communities and their norms are very important. While freedom of choice is desirable, overblown individualism is harmful.

The irony, for course, was that Arundhati Roy would have agreed with Aseema on consumerism, capitalism and overblown individualism. The novelist’s famous book, “The god of small things”, is about how destructive caste ideology can be. What the two women disagreed on was really only whether wearing jeans in India stood for women’s freedom of choice or for promoting irresponsible hedonism. Both would have agreed that it is important to empower India’s disadvantaged communities, and in particular the women among them.

Arundhati Roy did not write any more novels. She has become an essayist who writes about minorities, human rights, environmental decline and the negative impacts of consumerism and globalisation. At the same time, she has benefited from globalisation as her international success always amplified her voice in India.

Just as they now do in the case of Pan Nalin, conservative critics in India tried – and try – to discredit her by pointing out that the western public appreciates her work. They simply did not want to deal with the fact that her work makes sense to many Indians too. (Full disclosure: I personally didn’t like the novel, but I think some of her essays are really good.)

What really matters is not what audience a film director or novelist has in mind, but whether and how people relate to their work. Arundhati Roy and Pan Nalin both managed to reach people in India as well as in other countries. They tackled disturbing issues. The Indians they reached were real Indians, though Hindu chauvinists many not consider them “good” Indians. A real nation, however, is made up of many different groups, and India is an especially diverse nation.

P.S.: It is odd that Hindu chauvinists are proud of Yoga being popular in many western countries. The target group tends to be the same people who appreciate feminism.

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