Perceptions of India volley between the extremes of luxurious wealth portrayed in commercial Bollywood flicks and the news beat struggle the forty percent of the nation’s population living in poverty. The latter is a hairy picture for a Western public, to which the outrage over Slumdog Millionaire can attest. With every portrait of a country with enormous divides between class, caste, culture, language and religion, the question must be asked, “Is this the real India? Is this the India that Indians want the world to see?” To its credit, the Museum of Modern Art’s The New India series, sixteen films screened from June 5th through June 18th included thought-provoking documentaries about the reality of rural villages, including Megan Mylan’s film Smile Pinki, and Sourav Sarangi’s Bilal against large-scale Bollywood features like Luck by Chance by Zoya Akhtar, and subtler portrayals, like Buddhadev Dasgupta’s The Voyeurs that raise questions as much about the rise of India in the global eye and portrayals of poverty.
The line between an honest portrayal of rural life and “poverty porn” is fine and often blurry. Smile Pinki, directed by Megan Mylan stays beautifully clear of dangerous territory, recounting the story of poverty-stricken children with cleft lips and their magical transformation upon receiving free surgeries from a charity organization, The Smile Train. The film pivots around the vitality of the patients, a young girl in particular whose courage comes as a unnerving reminder of the astounding resilience of children. Sourav Sarangi’s Bilal is a far more complicated, ambivalent affair, following a young boy living in poverty with blind parents, unsure of itself as a documentary or a more stylistic narrative. Sarangi often films at Bilal’s eye-level, seeing the world from his perspective picks fights with peers and roosters outside of the 8×10 foot partitioned room he shares with his blind parents and little brother. Life is hard, as the parents are led around infamous Calcutta streets and struggle with debt, abortion, and violence portrayed matter-of-factly. Moments of hardship are obviously downplayed and others are not, muddying the line between slum exotica and a tale of real hardship and strength.
India cannot be seen without the role of fantasy and escapism provided by cinema’s ubiquitous cultural presence. Zoya Akhtar’s Luck by Chance transitions from the aesthetic world of glossy Bollywood parties to the humble lives of struggling artists, to the sets gaudy day-time soap operas. The deliberate moves between the glamorous celebrity-studded dream and the reality of an industry run on nepotism and corruption a simultaneous self-consciousness and great love for the industry the film criticizes and participates in. While revealing an industry that thrives on its incestuous breeding of star cache, Zoya Akhtar never loses sight of the impact of this world on the quotidian reality of Indian life across social stratum.
Buddhadev Dasgupta’s The Voyeurs, zooms in a little closer, painting a poetically stylized portrait of contemporary urban Calcutta, telling the sad tale of two young men and the effect of technology and popular culture on their lives in a modern environment run on traditional values. Much of the film is delightfully acted in the saccharine style of old Bengali comedies, the dialogue sing-song theatrical. Old Indian cinema plays a significant role in the film as the two protagonists’ small, circumscribed lives are rendered less lonely by their admiration for a picture of Madhubala, a beauty from 1940s Indian cinema over whom they rhapsodize, sharing woes – another manifestation of the emotional role of Indian film in the lives of Indians across the socio-economic board.
Shaik Nasir’s short brings role of film in the Indian consciousness most emphatically to the fore in Superman of Malegaon which follows the making of Malegaon-ka Superman, a regional parody of Superman whose production is a comedy of errors, the final product is a hilarious mash up, YouTube style. The importance of such a small production in the lives of the desperately underprivileged speaks to the changing nature of film in India and the growing interest in using the medium for poetic statements about Indian life – without compromising the tremendous need for escape that Bollywood provides. In a much needed attempt to offer a deeper look, the series offers a largely textured and broad, if not complete, view of a growing, changing Indian film industry, and in the best testament to the nature of the country, leaves one with a sense of paradox and questioning of perception of the diversity and portrayal of Indian life and cinema.