India is a sovereign country that will soon turn 68 years old and, like all good grandparents of similar age, after a lifetime of hard work, can look forward to nagging its grandchildren about marriage and whether or not they’re eating properly. Unfortunately, things are far more complex (and also India is a country, guys) than that. Various issues blight the progress that the country has made in these years, and the majority of these are relics of the British rule, such as corruption, the caste system and LK Advani. However, the one thing that tends to go slightly under the radar is the tendency and sometimes, obsession, of comparing India to the ‘developed’ countries of the so-called Western world and, thus, judging India’s progress on criteria far more stringent and unfair.
Firstly, it is completely warranted to want to have India reach the levels of development witnessed in the Western world. It is also reasonable to temper expectations and the hyperbole somewhat. Take the area of cinema, for example. Every year, every good film produced in India will have the words ‘Oscar entry’ attached to either its reviews or on social media, which I too have been guilty of in the past. A.R. Rahman’s name is preceded by the words ‘Oscar winner’ in any promotion for a film score or a concert, as though his masterpieces in Hindi and Tamil cinema are somehow secondary to the award. An Oscar is, undoubtedly, a great achievement and does have several benefits (mainly to increase international awareness of a film/artist who otherwise wouldn’t be noticed) but to reduce the accomplishment of an artistic endeavour to one specific award is like calling Hans Zimmer the Himesh Reshammiya of Hollywood because ‘chartbuster after chartbuster, boss’: it’s pretty insulting and worthy of a lawsuit. Just like a Prabhu Deva film is completely different from a Christopher Nolan film (and thank God for that small mercy), Indian cinema is a medium of expression vastly different to Western cinema and aimed at a different audience. A film made in India, for an Indian audience, should be adjudged without international approval being an essential criterion – the recognition will naturally come in due course, as the internet and word of mouth bridges any geographic obstacles.
Similarly, sporting achievement is also subject to the same rigmarole and regurgitation. I could almost bet that around the time of the Olympics, there will be at least one article titled ‘WHY NOT INDIA PRODUCE AT LEAST 1000 GOLD MEDALS WITH A POPULATION OF 500 GAZILLION, GO TO PAKISTAN YOU ANTI-HINDU’ or something along those lines. Once again, comparisons with far richer countries like the USA or Russia, who crucially have a history and culture of sporting excellence, not to mention facilities and a system which nurtures young athletes, completely disregards India’s specific issues: the main one being that this is a nation where 9 out of 10 parents will encourage their children to follow the academic route and not the sporting one, and rightly so from their point of view. Unless and until we conduct an internal examination as to why India is not producing the number of world-class talent its population suggests it should and focus on creating an environment which foments sporting culture, rather than levelling unfair comparisons, the medals tally will remain paltry.
And finally, we come to the colossi that are cultural comparisons, because these are the ones which could potentially decide the policies and, hence, the direction that the country takes. To illustrate my point, I am going to attempt to tackle and voice an unpopular opinion regarding something which has caused a furore in India recently: homosexuality and the right to practice. Firstly, let me make it clear that the idea of any government or authority denying its people the right to choose who they love is abhorrent. Using the case of various countries worldwide, Western and otherwise, which have decriminalised/legalised homosexuality as a stick to beat/equate India with is also completely ignoring the various idiosyncrasies that define India. Take the comparison with the USA, for example. The USA recently legalised same-sex marriage – after 239 years of independence, 1/4th of India’s population, and vastly fewer races, castes and ethnic groups. Australia, another Western world country, has still to decriminalise gay marriage. The UK legalised it in 2014, roughly 300 years after the formation of the Union. These are all rich, relatively homogenous and mature countries and they have still taken an eternity to reach their respective judgements. India is a mere 68 years old. In a country which contains 25% of the world’s poorest people and 1/3rd of the world’s malnourished children, the right to practice one’s sexuality is likely to be preceded by the right to adequate nutrition and sustenance and the right to live in appropriate shelter. As a result, whilst the Government of India’s decision to ban homosexuality cannot be condoned or justified, it can perhaps be understood – by looking at the internal factors and conditions of Indian people, and not through baseless and misleading comparisons with other countries.
The main point amidst the sermonising is that India is a very unique, diverse and complex country, where a one-size-fits-all approach is about as appropriate as airing Jism 2 before the watershed. Hence, comparisons about how Country X brought about change are ineffective at best and potentially regressive at worst. India needs to embrace its artists based upon their work within the Indian cinematic framework and not look towards international recognition as a barometer for success. It needs to change its inherent mind-set about sports to produce world-class talent and, thus, win Olympic medals. And it has to take infant steps towards bringing about human rights changes by firstly encouraging discussion, removing the internal taboo and then implementing the correct policies. Then, and only then, will India become the Hans Zimmer of the ‘developing’ world.
Article by Mihir Choughule