A documentary, and my thoughts afterwards

Yesterday, as part of the

Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival

I watched a documentary, “Nero’s Guests”, made by Deepa Bhatia. There was extensive footage of P Sainath, Rural Affairs Editor of the Hindu, as he showed how poverty is never properly covered by the mass media, even though farmers are regularly committing suicide. The film was made against the specific backdrop of the cotton farming areas of Vidarbha.

It was a moving documentary, and had the audience close to tears. At the end, Prakash Belawadi moderated a discussion, which, of course, ended in the air, as all such discussions do. Each of us probably came away resolved to try and do something about the tragedy of farmers pushed to the point of death…but I have been thinking about this and other documentaries, plays, and other such events…. and several rather negative thoughts occur to me. Let me state them and they are open to be debated on…or violently disagreed with.

Films of this kind, however moving they are, are not as effective as they should be. This is because the people who come to see them are NOT the consumers whose excessive materialism is fuelling the crisis…the audience usually consists of people who are already aware that there is a problem (even though they may not know the depth and complexity of it). What is the use of spreading the message amongst those who are already trying their bit to contribute to society, and right some wrongs, in whatever way they already can? Most of us in the audience, I’d say, are already people who are trying to live “green”, cut down conspicuous consumption, work with the poor or in the villages or forests. There is, sadly, only so much of spare time, money, and energy that we have. We cannot channel all of that into too many directions. The fat cats, the conspicuous consumers, the conscience-less administrators…the documentary should be viewed by them. But they never do.

Also, there seems to be a kind of guilt overload associated with such documentaries. “Nero’s Guests” seems to be particularly pointed in this…it points (as does Sainath in the documentary) directly at us, and says, let us not blame the government which has instituted such awful rules and regulations that make farmers’ lives, and livelihoods, such hell that they take their own lives. Rather, the blame is shifted to Nero’s Guests..the guests who attended the huge celebration that Nero organized when Rome was burning, and who ate and drink by the illumination of torches…that were human prisoners, who were set alight for the purpose.

I cannot agree with this viewpoint or shoulder this huge burden of guilt. Most of us (especially those watching the film) are law-abiding people, who pay our taxes, which are supposed to go for the betterment of our fellow-citizens as well a our own lives. Our own lives are not easy in India; we fight daily battles with the government and an establishment which is very user-unfriendly, and is deliberately kept so by vested interests which can then make money by bribery and corruption. To me, it looks as if the film targets those who are also victims, and says, “But you are more fortunate than these other victims, so help them.” We are those who want our elected government representatives to use the money we pay as taxes and cesses, and use them for the purposes stated…not salt them away in numbered accounts in Switzerland. It’s not we who are battening on the blood, sweat and tears of the farmers in the rural areas. We pay high prices, we pay for our fuel, are we to blame if it never reaches the sources, but is sucked away by the middlemen?

Then there is this whole “moral judgment” of such films. “I’ve brought this ill to your notice, now, if you do not do something about it, you are not a good human being.” Most of us feel that it is the job of the elected representatives and the civil servants, to administer our villages, not ours. We have our jobs, which we are doing with diligence. Surely the focus should be on revamping the administration instead of pointing accusing fingers at the citizens, and asking them to do something? And it is only those of us whose consciences are already sensitive, who feel this guilt, and squirm uncomfortably under its burden each time.The more I have a social conscience, the more I am constantly put in the dock, and asked, “What ELSE are you doing?”

Another factor, I feel, plays a role in our lack of engagement. Apart from the disconnect many of us have with the lives of people in rural areas, we are, from childhood, brought up to regard ourselves (the middle class) as the underprivileged. We are not taught to not look down, but up…at the billionaires and the magnates and the kingpins and their lifestyles. Our media and our newspapers and magazines splash pictures of malls and gadgets and cars and villas constantly in front of us…most of which we can never afford. And certainly, when our lives are so filled with strife and the need to earn our living,and face bribery, corruption and inefficiency at every level, it is difficult to see ourselves as empowered, privileged beings. The privileged people…are not us, so all we do is to strive to the extent that is reasonably possible, to lead ethical lives.

So…the constant refrain of “you must do something” begins to pall after a while. Should I teach blind children? Should I work with villagers on the edge of the forest? Should I work with spastic children? Should I only travel by public transport? Take bucket baths? Eschew our cars as much as feasible? Contribute financially to various organziations working in various fields? I’ve done..and am doing, all these, and to say so sounds as if I, too, am putting myself on some morally high ground…but I’m just trying to make the point that having done it, I am still loaded with guilt by such assaults, which point fingers directly at me, and say, “You are well-off and comfortable, you are not doing enough.”

Surely, we of the middle class have worked to be where we are today, and deserve what we have, without having to feel guilty about it? No one helped us, and we did not take crooked paths or cut corners to get to our present level of reasonable comfort. We still battle the establishment at every point, every government agency and social construct, that harasses us. We do not ask for mercy, we just get on with our lives; and yes, we do spare a thought for those less fortunate than we are, and try to spare whatever effort and time and money we can, for them. I like to think that the middle class is far more generous in spirit then we are ever given credit for. And yet, the message always is, “Do more, do more, do more, it is you who have to do it.”

Yes…I agree that we are the ones who have to bring in change, engage in the electoral process, and elect better leaders, and usher in transparency and accountability into the government, get rid of our attitude of apathy. But to be accused and told that it is we who have to constantly help our less fortunate brothers and sisters…we take it as much as we can, but there are times when it just turns us off, and we return to our own trials and tribulations (which no one helps us with) and decide, “We can’t do any more”. Too much of evangelism has an effect the very reverse of what it seeks to achieve.

But we will still go to see films like this, plays with a message, and still try to do whatever we can to ameliorate the lot of those who, we realize, are in far more of difficulties than we are..in comparison with whom, we feel grateful that, but for the grace of God or Fate, those unfortunate people could be…us.

So…I wish that those who make such efforts to sensitize common citizens to the plight of others, do not load them with guilt and reduce them by implicit accusation, into defendants, held responsible for the woes our society and country is suffering from.

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