Living in India where nothing is certain
Marc-Ivan O’Gorman is showcasing Irish animation in New Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai as part of the current Irish Film Festival of India
Whatever about an Arab Spring, there is no Indian Spring, at least not in Delhi. Fog and winter temperatures that reach freezing give way, almost instantly, to daytime highs of 95 degrees. In the space of a week, the heaters are turned off and A/Cs are turned on. And so, I arrive to find the fat four-petalled blossoms of silk cotton trees strewn across streets, their crimson flesh mulched by the ceaseless traffic; scattered too are the spiky vermillion cast-offs of bottlebrush tree, all plant life seemingly ridding itself of excess layers like a child playing in the summer heat.
I am greeted also by Holi, the Indian festival that is an advertising execs dream. The multitude clad in white throw colour at each other while under the influence of bhang lassi (if you can imagine marijuana flavoured Yop). Tourism board ultra-slo-mo images of models, ecstatically gyrating in explosions of colour against backdrops of impossibly romantic, Rajasthani palaces, is at odds with the reality of gangs of young fellas out to destroy some unsuspecting passerby with water balloons filled with toxic Chinese dye. The best analogy is the contrast between the Hollywood portrayal of a snowball fight: a powdery dreamworld of hilarity and fun, and the Irish reality of getting pressure-packed ice-blocks rifled at the back of your neck by some delinquent.
But perhaps I’ve become jaded, for this is not my first spring in India. I now take for granted the oddities of everyday life on the streets of India; the family of five, including a babe in arms, travelling on a scooter, the driver the sole wearer of protective headgear, (perhaps a construction worker’s hardhat), or at the mutilated beggars rapping their stumps against your car window, or the cow, elephant, camel or monkey wandering among the traffic of cycle rickshaws, Porsche SUVs, three-wheel ‘tuk-tuks’, and curtain-lined Morris Ambassadors.
India has been my home-from-home for a decade now, and my view of it has altered as much as the country itself has changed in that time. When I arrived it had just began to bear the fruits of ‘liberalisation’, the current prime-minister Manmohan’s Singh’s initiative to unleash the Indian entrepreneurial spirit. What was available to the visitor in 2000 in the way of services was very different to what visitors experienced previously. That said, I recall sitting in a hot and cramped ‘internet cafe’, trying to get my emails via dial-up while the owners mom stared at me suspiciously from her plastic lawn chair. Or standing on the side of the road making international calls from an ‘STD’ booth. There was no western food, nor decent coffee, never mind a pint of stout. Now everything is available.
From my shuttling back and forth a strange dichotomy soon emerged. When I returned to Ireland, Indian life seemed so alien that I wouldn’t know where to begin when trying to share my experiences. I hadn’t set-out to live some radical adventure. I was just living, yet it appeared I was living in an entirely different world. Between the domestic help (that’s right, servants), the poverty, the wealth, the politics; an incumbent Congress party, the opposition Hindu Nationalists, the movie stars; Amir Khan, Salman Khan, Shahrukh Khan, Irrfan Khan, Saif Ali Khan, the cricket stars, page 3 (different connotation) socialites, 26/11, 2G scandal, and a myriad of other themes that exercised the Indian imagination gain little traction in Ireland.
Similarly, the obsessions of daily life in Ireland did not hold much currency at dinner parties in New Delhi. There was occasional interest in economic matters, the odd inquiry about the opportunity of investing in cheap property. It may strike the Irish reader as surprising that the residents of a country they’ve been lead to believe was the in third world would be interested snapping-up property deals in their neighbourhood, surprising that is until one sees the prices of South Delhi apartments. We are talking millions and I don’t mean rupees.
Delhi is not an easy city to live in by International standards. Footpaths are non-existent. To travel the shortest distances, even in swish neighbourhoods, you must take your chances with whizzing traffic., the implication being if you have to walk you don’t count. Public transport is a mixed bag. The metro is over-crowded, buses have the reputation of being death traps. Fares for tuk-tuk drivers must be negotiated in advance. All have meters but whoever installed them has questions to answer because in all my time in India I have yet to come across one that worked. That the metered fair is about one quarter of the negotiated fare may also have something to do with it. There are regular power outages, though this is becoming less common, you cannot drink the water, and sometimes you run out of that, the air pollution, can at times, be as bad as anywhere in the world, and let’s not get started on the subject of women’s safety.
There are compensations: pomegranate for breakfast, fresh mango in season, champa flowers, mughlai food, south indian veg thalis, parties on roof terraces. Hindustani music concerts, sufi singing, the fantastical productions that are Punjabi weddings, the temples, and the castles and the mosques.
People often ask me should they visit India, would they like it? I answer yes, if they are up for a challenge. It is not the place for a relaxing holiday, even though that’s there. It is not a place that you will be ambivalent about. No one returns from India and shrugs, “It was nice”. You will come across the most amazing things you’ve ever encountered and the most appalling things , perhaps even on the same street. But I feel you cannot legitimately claim to be interested in travel and ignore India.
Challenges confront you at every turn but they’re not just external ones. Exploitation and inequality is all too apparent. In Ireland we are not exposed to this directly though we certainly take advantage of it. When we buy a 20 cent piece of exotic fruit or a €2 t-shirt we do so thanks to the efforts of the low-waged or the under-aged. The difference is that in Ireland we never have to actually see these people. A trip to India forces one reflect on the realities of an unjust world.
But I’m always brought back to one prevailing characteristic in India: the irreconcilability of extremes, a nuclear power with many of its citizens without electricity, the third country in space, though many villages have no roads, a centre of philosophical and spiritual enlightenment that embraces rampant and crass materialism, a country with vast wealth, the most expensive private home in the world, a country of immense poverty and the home of bulk of the world’s impoverished population . These extremes distress visitors unable to get a handle on the essence of the country but for Indians this, unfortunately, is just life.
My time here has allowed me to work variously TV, film and media. Shortly before my arrival there were two TV channels; those of the Indian National Broadcaster, now there are hundreds; Punjabi music channels, Tamil Movie channels, English News Channels, Hindi wildlife channels – a fascinating media landscape. A country where newspapers still make money, vast amounts of money, and where there are three channels devoted entirely to cricket.
I’ve done my bit to fly the Irish flag, organising various photo and video art exhibitions high-lighting Irish work and in the last two years establishing and running the Irish Film Festival. Films seemed an obvious choice. Indians love their movies (and their movie-stars) but as with the rest of the world, the focus tends to be on commercial cinema, their own independent cinema is not as strong as it might be, western movies screened tend to be Hollywood blockbusters. So I have my work cut out for me.
Indeed Ireland is not widely known and when it is, it is seen as a part of the UK. But the assumption is it is pretty. I tell people it’s like a hill station, to convey the sense of green, misty lands, and before people at home chortle at the idea of Ireland being misty, (“misty like cats and dogs”). Remember Indian towns like Cherrapunji are known to get an annual rainfall of 9 metres. In the baking heat of an Indian summer the idea of a cool land, spritzed with rain, is very appealing.
With last year’s film festival I went with the theme of Irish Literature, the Irish cultural trump card, as it were. You may not be able to point out Ireland on a map but you’ve heard of James Joyce, right? How about Oscar Wilde, or G. B. Shaw? The festival went down extremely well so we’re doing it again. This year the theme is one that has recently gained traction internationally; animation. Not only is it convenient to cite multiple recent Oscar nominations in the promotion of the event, there’s also the additional angle of presenting something that is a genuine Irish-Indian collaboration; as many Irish companies work in partnership with Indian studios to produce TV series now seen on channels around the world.
We launched the festival last week with the beautiful and charming feature: The Secret of Kells. I circulated the synopsis and encouraged people to come and bring their kids. One reply asked if their children would have to know all about “The Bible” and “Jesus” to understand it. Because they didn’t.
I hadn’t anticipated that being a factor in enjoying a family movie, then again, one can assume nothing in India.
Marc-Ivan O’Gorman is director of the Irish Film Festival of India, which runs from April 1st to 18th in New Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai, supported by Culture Ireland and the Irish Film Institute. See irishfilmfestivalofindia.com for more details, or find them on Facebook or Twitter.