Projecting a distorted reality

A documentary for British children presents an inaccurate and oversimplified image of India.

By Sevanti Ninan
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

Awerness-raising videos made for Western consumption are better not seen or shown in India. Though they strive hard to be politically correct, oversimplification and factual inaccuracies inevitably creep in. Neighbours -- The Life and Times of Yesudas Kemel, an educational package prepared for schools by ACTIONAID UK, a non-governmental organisation, is a case in point. Neighbours is the sort of film meant to provide development education to children in affluent societies. It informs children about India and Indian society by documenting a day in the life of a teenager in Anand Gram in Delhi.

The film does not dwell on poverty but tries to show the aspirations and opportunities of ordinary people. For instance, though Anand Gram was set up to rehabilitate leprosy patients, it is as normal and productive a community as any other -- with shops, small enterprises and homes for people who are being treated for leprosy or have been cured of it. Even families who never had leprosy live there.

The ad paradox So far, so good. But one is at a loss to understand the way advertisements pop in suddenly. As Yusuf's family gets ready to brush its teeth in the morning, an advertisement for a popular brand of toothpaste is beamed in. Later, there is a commercial for a ketchup. Are these ads meant to subsidise ACTIONAID's educational venture or are they intended to liven up the picture of Indian society?

Then, there is an equally kitschy picture of Indian society when one of the two university students in Anand Gram describes his girlfriend: "She loves me too much and I am also loving her. I like her too much." The idea, doubtless, was to give English boys and girls some idea of how similar young people in strange, faraway Third World countries are to them.

Some of the inaccuracies are unforgivable. It is not true that "only rich families" can afford to send their children to school in India nor is it true that most schools in the country are fee-paying: fees are nominal in the vast network of government schools.

It is also an oversimplification to state that marriage among Hindus is a contract arrangement and not based on physical or emotional attachment. But then, how else would you package a complex society for schoolchildren in the West, who must be educated on how the other half lives?

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