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
holding
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)