Mumbai Wed 3 Aug 2016
by Harsha Prabhu
The 4th Indian Screenwriter’s Conference at St Andrew’s auditorium in the suburb of Bandra, Mumbai got off to a flying start today. Poet and arts administrator Ashok Vajpeyi’s speech was on India’s rich cultural and linguistic diversity and multiplicity of vision. He said there were over 700 languages in India and Hindi alone had 46 dialects. He remarked on the Indian genius for worshipping myriad gods as a mark of an eclectic, rather than an exclusivist, imagination. Indians have always asked questions, said Vajpeyi, giving the example of Nachiket from Indian mythology who refuses to accept his fate and has no hesitation questioning Yama, the God of Death. Vajpeyi opined it was necessary for artists and writers to question everything.
Vajpeyi’s talk, in Hindi, was studded with quotations and wry observations. In a time scarred by ugly displays of blind nationalism and religious and cultural fundamentalism Vajpeyi argued for a discourse that broke through narrow self-absorption to include the ‘other’, however one choose to define her/him. ‘Without “others”, there is no “us” ‘, he said. And even though he himself was an atheist, Vajpeyi suggested that only those prayers were useful that were said for the wellbeing of others. Speaking to the cream of writers, directors and producers that constitute Bollywood’s dream factory and the many aspirants and independent creatives at the conference,Vajpeyi said the only dream worth dreaming was to dream up the greater common good. “Sapna vahi hain joh doosron ke leye dekha gaya” he said.
In his keynote address, journalist P Sainath said India embodied many different realities and the key stories worth telling lay at the intersections of these conflicting streams. Some of these seemingly conflicting realities were interlinked: like drought and floods, both caused by deforestation and urbanisation. He gave the example of religious sites located at the source of rivers like the Godavari – now run dry due to environmental degradation and gentrification. Illustrating the absurdity of the situation Sainath showed us a photo of a pilgrim performing ablutions under the hose of a water tanker at the sacred tank at Ramkunda on the Godavari.
Sainath elaborated on the many ways in which India has slid down the dangerous slippery-slide to becoming a country with the largest income disparity in the world – and it’s grown at a supercharged level in the past 15 years as compared to the last 50. Sainath uses facts like a blowtorch to cut through cant. In a talk peppered with facts gleaned from the Indian census, the Forbes billionaire’s list and Credit Suisse – the richest 1% own 53% of India’s wealth; the richest 10% own a staggering 76.3% – backed up by slides showing an advertisement for a luxury residential tower with a swimming pool attached to every apartment, juxtaposed against photos of drought-affected villagers, Sainath sounded a warning: India is beginning to resemble a gated community aimed at keeping out the poor.
This was happening in parallel to the greatest internal migration seen in India since independence, a migration even greater than that occasioned by partition in 1947, a migration driven by the denudation of rural India caused by unequal development and accompanied by rampant urbanisation. Sainath wove farmer’s suicides, crony capitalism, the unequal sharing of natural resources and tax concessions to the rich and famous into a dark web of nepotism, the rape of natural resources and national ruin. He gave the shocking example of tractor loans in Aurangabad at a whopping 15.9% forcing farmers into debt, while loans for Mercedes Benz luxury limousines were 7%.
Sainath also spoke of the many journalists working for smaller, regional newspapers who had lost their lives covering the real story – not touched by the mainstream media controlled by monopolist media barons like Ambani, India’s richest man with a net worth of US$19.3 billion (Forbes). Sainath ended his address by recommending folks contribute to the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI, at https://ruralindiaonline.org/), documenting ‘the everyday lives of everyday people.’ Sainath’s talk drew a standing ovation in a packed-out St Andrew’s auditorium.
Will the rest of the screenwriter’s conference follow the inspiring lead blazed by Ashok Vajpeyi and P Sainath? Will the screen writers, directors and producers rise to the challenge of portraying India’s cultural pluralities and realities? India’s ocean of a million untold stories are crying out to be told.
Pic: Detail of a painting by Rukshana Tabassum