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Real Bharat, Reel India

Real Bharat, Reel India

Author: Shobhan Saxena
Publication: The Times of India
Date: February 22, 2009

Those photographs all but made us smell the dust. A peasant squatting on parched land, staring at a harsh blue sky with stony eyes.

It was the image that defined India for decades - a newly-independent nation of millions, where drought and floods took turns to torment the people. Writers and filmmakers came from far away to capture the real India - poor people and scabby dogs sharing space in hot dustbowls. Now, thanks to Aravind Adiga, Danny Boyle, Simon Beaufoy and David Miliband, it's being argued that the real India is back in focus. Is it?

The truth is the real India never really went away - in real life or fiction. In the '50s and '60s, the best, most popular Bollywood stories were told by Raj Kapoor, who often played the underdog. He was a Chaplinesque tramp living on a footpath and trying to make both ends meet in the big, bad city. The trend continued into the '70s and '80s when angry young men - born in gutters and raised on the sidewalks - fought pitched battles with the men who ran the system. In the world of literature, the standards set by pre-Independence giants such as Premchand were continued by writers like Mulk Raj Anand and Mahashweta Devi who crafted fascinating stories about poverty and struggle.

With such a rich collection of stories about the real India already with us, why do we credit the new kids on the block with its creation? Narendra Jadhav, vice-chancellor of Pune University and author of the Dalit family story Outcaste: A Memoir, says, "I don't think Adiga and Boyle have shown the real India. There is a silent revolution happening in India, with millions of people who have lived on the margins for centuries, now experiencing positive changes in their life. Adiga's The White Tiger and Slumdog Millionaire show the bad side of this change. That's also a reality but it's not the real India." Jadhav's multilayered saga traces the awakening of Dalits over three generations. No story about the real India could be more real than this.

The book, translated into 17 languages, has been a bestseller in many European countries. It has sold 200,000 copies just in South Korea. "It's a story of triumph but it's not a rags-to-riches story. It's a story of courage and hard work. My father never went to school but I went to the US to do my PhD," says Jadhav, formerly chief economist of the RBI. "It's a book with universal appeal."

Slumdog's appeal probably lies in its rags-to-riches angle, but it too made us smell the dust, reminding us of the silent revolutions sweeping through India.

- sunday.times@timesgroup.com

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