The celluloid fantasy of a dystopian world is a reflection of our society
The blockbuster film Hunger Games, a teenage adventure thriller set in a dystopian and supposedly futuristic society, grossed US $357.1 million in the first five weeks of its release. Its popularity has had critics and essayists reaching out for metaphors in the story—the first in a best-selling trilogy by Suzanne Collins—and offering interesting but sometimes far-fetched reasons for its success.
Briefly, the film tells the story of a North America that has turned into a totalitarian state, ravaged by chronic food shortages that have led to rebellions in the provinces far from the centre. The uprisings have been brutally suppressed and these communities are forced to live in dirt-poor conditions. As punishment for their rebellion, the outlying areas which are known as numbered districts have to annually supply two young persons (ages 12 to 18) to compete in a televised survival contest in a fenced-off forest area. The contestants are provided with food and weapons (bow and arrow) to fight the terrain and each other until only one remains alive in a variation of the Roman gladiatorial contests.
In contrast, the metropolis which rules the country is a gleaming futuristic landscape marked by excess and decadence—from the food to the clothes that are favoured by its wealthy but flaccid autocrats who control the impoverished population through the bloody reality shows on TV. The heroine of this piece of cinema is a young girl who lives in a destitute coal-mining district and feeds her mother and sister by hunting and bartering.
So some American writers have seen the movie as a cinematic fable of the traumatic world of teenagers who face bullying, peer pressure and the nagging judgement of adults; others see it as a metaphor of the destructive nature of capitalism. But in India would such a film be a metaphor or a weak imitation of our ugly reality? For all its advances in the arts and science—yes, we catapulted ourselves into the most elite of clubs by launching an intercontinental ballistic missile last month—India remains a brutish society for the most part. From the sanctimonious middle class that exploits domestic help to the forest officials who violate forest dwellers, India lives in a dystopian present that is more unnerving than the most febrile imagination of the western literary world.
In Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, which is certainly scarier than District 12 in Collins’s trilogy, we have learned to live with a vicious cycle of violence. Pristine, gentle woodlands are turned into bloody battlegrounds even as ministers weaned on capitalist notions of development offer packages that leave the local population ever more at the mercy of profit-hungry companies. The last issue of Down To Earth carried a chilling expose (‘Between Maoists and mines’) of what the Ministry of Rural Development proposed in the serene sal forests of Jharkhand’s West Singhbum district.
The resource tragedy of these forested states, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha among others, where the most backward of Indians live, appears to confound the government. It has shown neither imagination nor courage in drawing up blueprints that would alleviate the suffering of its most vulnerable people (Adivasis and the Dalits), or protect the environment. Is it for want of understanding of the issues?
In 2008, a group of administrators along with social scientists and human rights activists presented the Planning Commission with a 95-page report titled Development Challenges in Extremist-Affected Areas. It offered basic prescriptions for ending the centuries-old oppression and neglect by offering them justice and dignity. But can our policymakers do this? They are MPs whose thinking has been fashioned by universities in the US and Europe, never mind that these economies are all in a shambles today. The MPs are also among the richest in the country.
And so the brutalities have escalated by the day. From the stomach-churning episode of Soni Sori, a tribal school teacher who was hounded and arrested by the Chhattisgarh police as a Maoist supporter and later brutalised and sexually assaulted in police custody to the bloody attacks by the Maoists who are now on an abduction spree.
We could, of course, escape into our fantasy land: watch the many TV news channels or the equally bizarre reality shows. Even a DVD of Hunger Games would be a poor imitation.
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