A visit to Mumbai, India’s commercial capital and home to the country’s thriving film industry, can leave one feeling either exhilarated or disappointed.
Mumbai always leaves me feeling invigorated, but on a recent trip to what author Suketu Mehta refers to as “Maximum City”, I couldn’t help feeling the latter.
The visit convinced me that India will not progress to become an advanced economy unless it fixes it cities. And it will not contribute meaningfully to international discourses unless it sheds its inward-looking insularity, which is perpetuated by both the media and Bollywood.
With a population of more than 18 million, Mumbai is among the world’s largest megacities and an economic powerhouse that contributes significantly to India’s GDP. Many of the top industrialists, businesspeople and movie stars live in this city.
With so much wealth concentrated here, one would expect the infrastructure to be of top quality. But this is sadly not the case in most of Mumbai.
In the neighbourhood where I was staying, which is home to the Ambanis, among India’s most successful entrepreneurs, pavements are cracked or non-existent, manholes are left uncovered and in some parts the stench of raw sewage leaves one feeling nauseated. Even the neighbourhood’s famous landmark, Haji Ali mosque, which is visited by millions of locals and foreigners every year, looks like it might crumble. Air pollution, a perennial problem in Indian cities, is visible in the hazy skyscrapers that disappear under the smog caused by vehicular traffic and industries. The city also suffers from intense noise pollution from cars and taxis, whose drivers hoot incessantly day and night. (I have never understood the Indian habit of hooting – it is as if hooting is a sign self-affirmation – look I am here, I exist!).
Yet this neighbourhood boasts some of the most fashionable shops in India that sell haute couture designer outfits and other top-of-the-range products.
Such contradictions can be found everywhere in this and other Indian cities. Spotlessly clean air-conditioned shopping malls sit beside overcrowded slums.
These contradictions also manifest themselves in TV commercials where slimming products for obesity are as prevalent as weight-gaining products for skinny people.
To be fair, Mumbai’s authorities have made significant efforts to spruce up the city – there are new bridges and a modern state-of-the-art international airport, but basic infrastructure is still lacking. Adequate sanitation, including public toilets, is in short supply and open defecation is still the preferred mode of many of the city’s poor.
Religion may be the opium of the masses, but in India, while it has no doubt sedated people’s revolutionary spirit, it is the fantasy make-believe world of Bollywood that rules the hearts and minds.
(They say that for Indians, Bollywood stars are the third most worshipped deities, after God and cricketers.)
The latest Bollywood scandal dominating the airwaves is Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Padmavati, which is being boycotted by some states because it allegedly portrays a famous Rajput princess in a bad light. Effigies of the director and the film’s leading lady were burnt in Rajasthan, her birthplace.
This is how seriously Indians take Bollywood movies. I enjoy Bollywood films, but even I got tired of watching movie after movie on television. In a country as vast as India, with a middle class of 300 million people, one would think that television would have a more diverse menu for its viewers. (This does not apply to the mainstream English language print media, which is far more varied and sophisticated.)
With the exception of NDTV, the English-language news channel, there are few Indian channels focused on news, political analysis or social commentary.
Nor are there many channels focused on the country’s rich history and culture.
One would think there would be at least one TV channel focused on the country’s advances in technology, but even in this area, television falls short. Indian TV can be extremely boring and tedious; it contributes to Indians’ insularity – few know what is going on outside their country.
Indians’ unhealthy obsession with Bollywood has hindered national conversations on real-life issues that impact ordinary people’s daily lives. Commercial Indian cinema’s numbing hold on the Indian psyche is similar to the dumbing-down effect of reality TV in the United States.