Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Slumdogs and Millionaires

Interesting story in The Age, an Australian newspaper (thanks to my friend Sundar for sending me the link):Who'd want to be a (Slumdog) Millionaire? It seems the producers have become millionaires with the film succeeding both in the box office and the Oscar nominations. But two of the main actors, Rubina and Azharuddin, who were paid very little for their efforts (that lasted one year) are back to their poor squalid surroundings and struggling to live and study. Rubina was, apparently, paid $ 1060 (something like Rs. 50,000) and Azharuddin $ 3600 (about Rs. 1,76,000) for one year's work.

"The child actors' parents have accused the hit film's producers of exploiting the eight-year-olds, disclosing that both face uncertain futures in one of Mumbai's most squalid slums." says the report.

Is it fair to expect someone taking a movie to help the people in his story financially? I don't know. But I know one thing. When the producer makes such a movie, it is only fair that (s)he pays his/her workers properly, whether they are established actors or children from a slum. Is Rs. 50,000 good enough for a year's work? I don't think so, but I am sure there are people who are paid less in the country. But I don't think that justifies a low pay either. In any case, I think it is really low for a child who did a role in a film, and that too working for one year. Is what Azharuddin got low? Well, to be frank, I don't know.

But the point is not simply that of paying a worker. It is also a moral question of making use of the pitiable state of some people to make money abroad and then leaving them in their misery. Just today I was told that the people who made the Tamil film Thannir Thannir, the story of a village that thirsts for water, left the people to their fate after making the movie. I can already hear people ask, "Then what should a film maker do? His job is to make movies. And, in any case, the movie helped to bring attention to the plight of the people, did it not? What more do you expect?"

True. But why did these people decide to take a movie on the plight of the poor? Was it out of empathy? Did they hope to find some solution to the problems these people are facing by letting others know about it? Or, did they think that this theme would sell well? In the former case, it is empathy that drives the decision. Therefore, one would expect empathetic behaviour from them -- at least use some of the money the film makes to help these people. In the latter case, it is only fair that the people who contributed to the film share some of the economic benefits. So, I think, in either case, there is nothing wrong in expecting some contribution from the film makers to alleviate the misery of the people whose story they are telling. But we didn't see that happening in either of the two cases mentioned above. At the same time, someone just mentioned to me this evening that all profits from the movie are earmarked for charity by its producer Anil Kapoor. I don't know how far it is true. But if it is, and he keeps his word, I withdraw all the above comments and apologise.

PS: Today's newspaper carried a report that said that the profits from the movie have been earmarked for development of the Mumbai slum that featured in the movie. If this is true, and they do indeed put money from the movie into the slums, then I sincerely apologise and withdraw my criticism. (Added on February 1, 2009)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Mere Desh Ki Dharti

"Mumbai-based filmmaker Sumit Khanna first embarked on the pesticides trail when he noticed the absence of the common sparrow from the green fields of Punjab. "Why is it, I thought to myself, that the sparrows have stopped making the fields their home despite the apparent presence of food? And then I discovered that the crop is so heavily sprayed with pesticide that no bird or beast can hope to survive in the fields," says Khanna. This process of discovery took the route of a 58-minute documentary film, financed by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT). To add a touch of irony, Khanna titled his film Mere Desh Ki Dharti, a popular song from a Hindi film that pays tribute to the abundance of food, water and happiness in India." This is a quote from an article in Infochange

I am reminded of very similar ideas expressed in a book that ultimately turned out to be one of the pioneering books on the environmental movement. It was written by Rachel Carson and was called Silent Spring. She starts with the concern about birds disappearing, and along with them, bird songs. And she goes on to show, in chapter after disgusting chapter, how technology in the form of chemicals that kill insects has destroyed bird populations. How nature has been silenced. How humans took 'control' of nature and came pretty close to destroying themselves.

Have we not learnt any lesson from all the heart-breaking episodes that Ms. Rachel described almost a half century ago? Do we have to replay all those absurd scenes again? Do we have to repeat all the mistakes that the West made? Are we always going to be followers of the so-called "developed" world? Why are we afraid of following our own path of progress? I admit that the 'West', or the 'North' as some prefer to say, has succeeded in brainwashing us into believing that theirs is the only way to achieving "development". This is a word I dislike using in this context, since it signifies growth, and I believe that growth is not the way to go forward. Continuous growth signifies infinite resources, since growth generally is taken to mean increasing consumption of resources. So I prefer the word "progress", which really does not imply growth (as in "progress along our way", for example).

Even if there is no destination, which seems to be clear, let us look for progress on our path, than for growth and development. Let us look for more equitable sharing of resources, less conflicts within society, less contradictions with nature. Let us think more of co-operation that competition. Let us forget about efficiency and think more about equity, for instance. Yes, that should be our path, and we could, perhaps, progress continuously along this path without creating trouble for other species. We are quite suited to set an example for the world in this matter, due to our unique history and philosophy of 'live and let live'. So let us lead the world rather than follow others.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Thoughts about New Year

Today is supposed to be New Year day. I looked around in the morning to see what was new about the day. I found the day to be very similar to yesterday. It was rather cool outside my house, the same as yesterday. I heard the same kind of bird songs. The same plants and trees stood in the same places, fortunately. The house also looked the same. The newspapers for the day were lying in the courtyard. And I read about people killed in accidents, about people murdered by individuals or state machinery, about people who committed suicide, about poverty, about joblessness and about political manipulations. And my house maid did not turn up, just as yesterday. So what is new? What was the big celebration people indulged in yesterday about? I hope you understand my doubt.

If I had a paper calendar, I would have had to replace it with a new one. Since I didn't have, well, it was just like any other day. Just that, hence forth, I would have to write 2009, instead of 2008, when I want to write the date on a cheque leaf, for instance. Well, but this kind of thing happens often, every day, in fact. Because every day the date changes. Once in a while the month also changes. So, of course, it is only fair that once in a longer while, the year also changes. This happens to be how we record the passage of time. Yes, sometimes we also need to write the time somewhere -- for instance, in a gate pass when we enter some institutions. Why fireworks and drunken displays when the date changes from December 31 to January 1?

In Kerala, India, where I stay, the year does not start on January 1. It starts on Chingam 1, where Chingam is the first day of the local calendar. But that is not celebrated. In many parts of the country, New Year is celebrated on April 14, the day when the Sun, the provider of all wealth, reaches the first point of Aries. In Kerala we have the traditional Onam festival some time in August or September. This is considered as a harvest festival. This was the time when paddy was harvested and people got their basic food grain. This was the time when the heavy rains from the South West monsoon ended and made life easier for the people. This would naturally have been a gime to celebrate. April 14th is also celebrated in Kerala as Vishu (interestingly, there is a similar celebration, Bihu, in the northeastern state, Asom, on the same day). But this is a short, one-day celebration. Interestingly, Vishu is also considered as a harvest festival. What I am trying to say is that such celebrations have always been associated with something good that happens at that time. But what about January 1? I am not able to find anything special about that date, in Kerala, India or anywhere else. In fact, in much of the northern hemisphere, which has most of the inhabited land, the temperate regions will be in the middle of winter and very cold.

Come to think of it, almost any day must be a new year's day in some part of the world. Even within India itself people follow different calendars in different parts of the country. And each one of them must have some history related to that region, and, therefore, related to the geography of the region. And, therefore, there could be reasons for celebration at that point of time. But what relevance does January 1 have for people in Kerala? Apart from the fact that many employees of government and private organisations get their salary that day? Aren't we aping the West again here?

Let me make one thing clear. I am not against using a common calendar all over the world. It does make things easier for a lot of people (though computers and the Internet should be able to handle the problem of multiple calendars easily). And New Year's eve has become an occasion for people to get drunk and drive madly. It is good that the police has put an end to the latter this year, but this was not always the case. What a waste of energy both human and fossil fuel! And what a meaningless and vulgar adoption of culture from the West.