Incredible India: A how-to for travelogues

The world loves India, we are the biggest exporter of manpower both skilled & unskilled. We gave the world Curry, Bollywood & Biryani. We also gave the world some unimportant things like the number zero, chess and a guidebook to lovemaking. Ask anyone on the road, they’ll tell you one of these and gloat about the country’s contribution to the world. Now that’s not how the world sees our contributions, To many India is still the land of mystery, magicians, disease and wild animals. There have been instances when someone with a CDMA flip-phone (the ones where you pull out an antenna) asked me if we have cellphones in India, that too after I looked helped him with directions using GMaps on my phone! A health insurance agent tried telling me how useful their product is especially to someone coming from a country where advanced medicine is unheard of. I could go on, but you do get the drift I hope. Last week I was flipping channels and landed on BBC, should have watched the ads on Times Movies instead. It was a travelogue on India and guess what the episode opens up with, people living under the flyovers! I’ve decided to help the makers of travelogues with this post and hope it serves as a how-to for future film-makers as well.

You can always use words like mystery, enchanted, and talk big initially of the diverse cultures, colorful attires and thousand dialects. It is very rare that you may be doing a story about the brains or management graduates and entrepreneurs. Even if that’s the theme it mostly is going to be about the BPO business and you can later get into how people from middle class families pick up accents. Nine out of ten times your story is going to be about the suffering, so go ahead and use a montage of pics portraying poor villagers, semi-naked tribals and malnourished kids on the footpaths.

India may be a huge country with 28 states, but the regions that matter are Rajsthan, the Rann of Kutch, slums of Mumbai, dacoits of Chambal, Naxlas in the Deccan, Fishermen in the South, Tribals in the East, Sherpas in the Shivaliks, migrants in Delhi and of course the Taj Mahal. As long as you’ve got plenty of shots from the above, you are golden and good to go. India is always hot, dusty, there are animals everywhere even in the cities you could show cows
up traffic
show cows holding up traffic. Our people are either skinny or starving and if you go south they are all dark-skinned. We may have cities and bustling metros but your target audience only wants to see the deserts, forests, mud paths, sand-trails and bullock carts. If your theme is music then worry not, you have plenty of folk music form every part of India to showcase. The kicker is the plight of these musicians and the dying art forms which people are abandoning due to poverty. India has plenty to offer for a food theme show, you don’t have to show the Biryanis of the Nizams, street food of Delhi or even savories of Chettinad. Head straight to the villages where you can focus on muddy rice porridge, stews made with any available root, how the seeds of mangoes are a protein substitute and if you make contact with any tribals then you hit gold with insects, worms, dogs and snakes being delicacies.

You rarely want to focus on the middle class, unless your show is about the occult and how people from the lower middle class pawn their life savings to ward off evil powers, or fight queues at the government owned ration shops. Stick to young girls rescued from the flesh trade, boys with mutilated limbs being forced into begging, teens in slums barely able to support themselves holding babies and cows eating from open dustbins. We don’t have books or an education system you see, so no point in any of that, the same goes for modern medicine and scientists. Oh if you do want to take a jibe at our scientists, then talk about our lunar mission and immediately cut to a scene where an infant under a flyover is eating mud. That is a great way to ease into a commercial break and keep the viewer interest at a high.

Employ a Sitar player for some morose tunes and add a good measure of the Tabla for dramatic scenes. Sunsets, animals and the break of dawn go best with flute music. The only other instruments you may feature are the ones used in the rural parts of the country. Talk in a deep sad narrative and take pity even at the setting sun for it is ashamed of the suffering of the people. Be sure to talk to or weave into your show various characters like semi-naked tribals, servants in houses, slum dwellers, hermits, corrupt politicians, lecherous guides and whores. Every story needs a whore
and a flashback
Every story needs a whore and a flashback of how she was forced into it, this is probably a good place for the dramatic Tabla music. Child labor is an important aspect and you could get your driver to slap him at the chai-stall and how you offer to help the boy and inquire about his education. Snakes are an important aspect so you might want to show your driver as a believer and someone from his family to have angered the snake-god and died to a venomous bite resulting from the curse. Your politician could be someone whom you approach to help the slum dwellers and then you reveal how he’s believed to have siphoned off funds meant for the poor and drives a BMW. Hermits make good viewing with their disheveled attires, ash covered bodies and ganja addiction. If you are adventurous and your show has an adult rating you could even do a small segment on the aghora cult, their practices of cannibalism and connections with world of the dead. If you have time you could also show inept government offices functioning without reason, where nothing moves without a hefty bribe and how NGOs are fighting a losing battle against the system. Most important of all is the mother of five in a slum unable to make ends meet, and the odd jobs she does can only buy enough food for one. She’ll have a drunkard for a husband who physically abuses her or is dead after consuming spurious liquor. The kids will have flies on their open wounds, dressed in rags or even naked with their ribs clearly visible.

We are a country that is always drowned in sorrow, we have never laughed and so be liberal in that portrayal. There is death everywhere, disease and exploitation. The filthier and miserable you show us; the closer you are to showing the real India. Don’t be afraid in showing how the host of your show was moved to tears on seeing our plight, a white person crying brings in higher TV ratingsa white person crying brings in higher TV ratings. Animal shows have a totally different template, but don’t worry we’ll find a way to weave in the pain & suffering. There are plenty of forests where you could show animals living in harmony with their surroundings. Tigers care for their young, elephants bathe their calves, and monkeys train their young to swing across trees. The mother lion hunts deer for its cubs and fends off unwanted guests, oh the possibilities are countless. Before the audience take it for another NGC show, cut to the tribals, their habitat being cut down due to expansion of cities, cheetahs killing their kids & livestock. There you have tears and suffering also you’ll be able to run a 5min reel on their food and unsanitary living conditions. All tribals are savage, for nobody likes to see happy faces. Give them a few trinkets to act menacing and you get award worthy shots.

No show is complete without interviewing an activist or an NGO working towards the suffering of our people. Many times the same person doubles up as your translator and guide depending upon your budget. They will give you insights into the abject disregard for the poor by the corrupt governments and help you translate the saddest and ghastly exploitation stories where you could use the sitar music hitting a crescendo. Don’t forget the sunrise and sunset shots near rivers and lakes, even better if you catch someone bathing or an animal drinking. Always remember to mention how the cities are overpopulated and migrants pour in each day in search of a better life. Diseases such as AIDS, malaria, jaundice & typhoid are good to show for then you can show people turn yellow or cough incessantly. Your last section must be reserved for the million temples and our lunacy to pray to idols of gods in various forms & shapes. Few shots of the architecture of the temples and will be good, but don’t overdo it. Cut to the bad state in which most of them are today and show a few deserted ones. In case you have to show a rich temple with gold plates on the outside, you can instantly nullify it by showing the weird practices, blind beliefs, animal sacrifices and tales from the crypt. As you roll the credits have your anchor/host hangout with a few expats as they share their stories and show off carpets, scarves & bangles they bought on the bustling streets of India!

End your show with a quote by the mahatma on peace and equality, sit back and wait for your award.

(Image Courtesy: IndiaCSR)

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12 Comments + Add Comment

  • S.a.r.c.a.s.m.

    Thank you. I’m tired of the slumdog millionaire kind of movies/shows/books/attitudes. I’m not denying it doesn’t exist. All I’m saying it show both sides of the coin.

  • Sorry for such a long comment but your blog post is brilliant so I had to share what I felt after reading this.

    Fortunately, I have not been subjected to these kinds of people who come to India to see the things which they haven’t seen at home. But, when I see the travel shows featured on Discovery / Travel & Living or if I search through some of the galleries of Indians on Flickr, I feel bad. More often they not, they find immense pleasure in showing those parts of India which we are not proud of.

    If you have seen the show ‘Paul Merton in India’ you might have seen him meeting with kids of the moms popular in the Red Light Area of Kolkata. It showed that NGOs are trying their best to educate the girls there so that they don’t fall in the same vicious circle of prostitution their moms fell because of several reasons. They also took him to the place where Jaipur foot is manufactured. It showed that Indians ‘do’ care about other humans as they provided free artificial limbs to the needy ones.

    But we, the Indians, also took him to the ever polluted Ganga river banks, showed him the waste we people put in the river which is holy for 80% of the Indian population. They also took him to the Mumbai CST and showed how the kids there are carrying out living by selling water bottles which people throw around as if the whole CST was a dustbin.

    Okay, showing both sides of the coin is idealistic but why cry out our limitations to the foreigners? Why to show our downsides? Why to take them to slums and make them laugh from in the inside or make them look worried from the outside. Why we see huge constructions of Shanghai and Beijing while we keep on seeing Indian tales of idiosyncrasy. We know that we are not perfect but why show this to world? Why feel inferior to the gori chamdi?

    I got an opportunity to work with a foreigner for 2 months or so. Although he did not do anything to make me angry but he’s paid a hefty amount by Indian standards to live here for few months as an Intern. Problem is that, in spite of him shelling out money, he has given an apartment which doesn’t have a water heater, the roof leaks even in the Jaipur rains which are as rare as an uncorrupt traffic policeman. He once took a lift from a motorbiker and the motor biker asked him to give 50 Rs. when the journey got over. Not to mention that he once bumped into another bike and they both fell and got hurt. Why do we want to put such a bad impression of us on others?

    • Thatnk you, it is indeed sad to hear that.

  • you forgot to add interviews from the transgenders & aids activists about the lack of funds. but mostly covered :D

  • this is the most soft hammering!!…awesome:)

  • Guess when it comes to ignorance, there is no limit.

    Killer ending statement btw.

  • A cynic after my own heart.

    Do keep your eyes open for a few sites that look past the usual diatribe of what’s wrong with India, there are several good examples out there.

    • loved your site, great work!

  • You know what the funny part about your whole post is, the fact that there are so so so many stereotypes in India. Most other countries would probably have 5, maybe 10, or a maximum of 15 different stereotypes, but India, wow, there are just so many of them in your post, and guess what your post barely skims the surface when it comes to Indian stereotypes.

    I guess that’s why there are always going to different types of TV Shows about India. The ones that talk about the jungles, the urban slums, the ones that cover the swanky Infosys campus in Bangalore, all of them will find their way to BBC, TLC, Discovery and the various other channels. I don’t think there is one standard template in which India can afford to be presented on TV.

  • All us Indian’s ALWAYS bitch about this but you’ve said it so well… im gonna bookmark this & show it everytime someone says ‘ohhh slumdog India ‘

    PS : On a more personal note your writing has changed so much over the years on an upward trajectory! Kudos :) <3 your giveback to the motherland

  • i just found your blog and though i have never commented on any article before, but this article made my day! Living abroad for 3 years now and have encountered every stereotypes you have mentioned here.
    GOOD JOB!!

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