Dear Indians, Tall Statues & Big Malls Won’t Win West’s Approval

How do we change the West’s ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ perception of India? Is it up to us to change this view?

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Opinion
8 min read
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Slumdog Millionaire, a British film with an Indian ensemble, received widespread critical acclaim and commercial success in the West especially, after its release in 2009. However, the movie remained controversial in India because of its poverty-stricken portrayal of the country.

Amitabh Bachchan wrote on his blog that this movie portrayed India as a ‘third-world, dirty, underbelly developing nation.’ Indian moviegoers expressed that the movie equated their country with poverty, slums, filth, and crime.

Indians take great pride in their 5,000 years of civilisation, the largest democracy, and their emerging status as the third largest economy (in terms of Purchasing Power Parity) in the world. However, an ‘anxiety of influence’ (think: Harold Bloom) bemoans them, in that India is still not considered at par with China for instance, and the West still has this ‘Slumdog Millionaire image’ of their country.

From Food To Films: Seeking The West’s Validation

In recent years, a sizeable section of the western media has tried to portray a different image of India by highlighting its emerging economy, IT sector, pharmaceutical industry, burgeoning middle-class, and skilled workforce. However, the overall narrative which still remains cliched, also stems from the fact that India is a lower-middle-income country with a GDP per capita (Purchasing Power Parity) of USD 7,874 (ranks 119 out of 185 countries) and 27.5 percent of its population living in multidimensional poverty.

In addition, India has appalling child malnutrition rates, the highest number of polluted cities, unclean public spaces, sub-standard government healthcare, and government schools.

Without a drastic improvement in economic and social conditions, this stereotypical image is bound to stay.

This article explores the average Indians’ anxiety of influence through the upsurge in number of YouTube reaction videos where foreigners — especially white foreigners — react to videos related to India: Bollywood movies, songs, stand-up comedians, military parades, speeches, travel, food, and so on.

These videos have millions of Indian views, and the comment section is filled with arguments seeking constant validation from westerners.

In the Indian political arena, the constant attention given to American and British media, the eagerness to get United Nations permanent seat, and the race of building the tallest statues also stem from such anxiety of influence.

But Why Do We Indians Seek The West’s Approval?

In 2003, UCLA Professor Vinay Lal wrote a journal article — India in the world: Hinduism, the Diaspora, and the Anxiety of Influence — where he argued that the Indian diaspora feels that the world rides roughshod over them, and would much rather see India respected, even feared, as a world power.

The article however, primarily focused on the anxieties of the Hindu Indian diaspora, especially those living in the United States. Although sixteen years have passed since this article was written, not much has changed, and Indian anxieties (across communities) have only increased. In this article, I would like to use Harold Bloom’s concept of ‘anxiety of influence’ to show how it is pervasive even more so among the average Indians living in India. I will use YouTube videos as my source of evidence in explaining this phenomenon.

This notion, that India should be admired and respected by the outside world, is due to the recent economic rise of the nation.

Since the 1991 economic liberalisation, India’s GDP growth has been relatively decent, with an estimated 267 million middle-class population, out of a total population of 1.3 billion. It is estimated that Indian internet users will reach 627 million by the end of this year. That is almost double the population of the United States.

India & The YouTube World

There are more than 265 million active Indian YouTube users with more than 1,200 Indian creators crossing the one million subscriber-milestone.

Indians have access to this huge online world where they watch, read, and comment on how the outside world, especially the West, views them. The validation from the West is important, as it is the epicentre of the economic, political, and cultural power of the world.

The choice of video reaction requests and the comment section display a constant need for validation from the westerners, and the desire that the West should dispel the ‘Slumdog Millionaire image’ of India and take it as a global power to be reckoned with.

There are thousands of such videos with views ranging from ten thousands to millions. Jaby Koay, a California-based YouTuber who reacts to Indian videos, has more than 1 million subscribers, and is the most popular YouTuber for Indian reaction videos. The scene from the 2007 Hindi film, Namastey London, has garnered special attention, and has been recommended to foreign YouTubers, because it confronts the issue of the cliched image of India.

In a scene in the film, Indian actor Akshay Kumar’s character confronts the English people who were making fun of India, and lectures them about the economic and military rise of his country. It is, however, ironical that Akshay Kumar holds a Canadian passport in real life.

‘Look At Our Shiny Malls, Our Development’

Los Angeles-based actors Rick Segall and Korbin Miles react to this scene on their YouTube channel, ‘Our Stupid Reactions’. Their channel grew from 1,800 subscribers in January 2019 to 262, 344 subscribers in late June 2019 after they started reacting to Indian videos. Rick, reacting to this scene, stated that he would recommend this video to the people who have similar stereotypical image sof India as a third-world country with snake charmers, people riding on dirty trains, and bathing in the polluted Ganges. Both agreed that Slumdog Millionaire presents a negative image of India and ignores the developed, diverse, and beautiful parts of the country.

In addition, Rick mentions that one of his Indian subscribers wrote to him saying: “We (Indians) are ecstatic that you (westerners) have noticed us because we, as Indians, felt ignored.”

In their [Indians’] opinion, being ignored by the seemingly ‘advanced’ West is tantamount to being disparaged.

Rick states that Indian subscribers are happy because they used to feel that westerners or Americans were arrogant, closed-minded, and had no interest in learning about Indian culture, but because of their videos, Indians have changed their mindset. As usual, Indians fill the comments section with obsequious comments thanking them and boasting about the rise of their country.

Travel videos also portray the same anxiety of influence, and they brim with pride when foreigners show developed parts or swanky malls. In the comments section, Indians write that ‘BBC and CNN have left the chat,’ implying that the western media only portrays the poverty and neglects the developed parts of India.

Impact of Colonial Rule, And The White Man’s Burden

The larger questions that emerges from thousands of these reaction videos are — why do Indians care so much about what the West thinks? Why should it matter that westerners have preconceived notions or have a change of heart after reacting to these videos?

Part of it also has to do with the colonial rule when India was exploited economically and militarily for the benefit of the United Kingdom. Indian born British poet, Rudyard Kipling, wrote the poem, The White Man’s Burden where he talked about the ‘moral duty’ of a white man to ‘civilise’ and govern the non-whites.

This idea was thoroughly perpetuated during the British Raj when Indians were made to feel inferior and incapable of governing their own country. In July 2015, an Oxford union speech by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor went viral online where he talked about the disastrous consequences of the British rule in India.

The effects of colonisation can also be seen in Indians’ desire for fair skin. Skin whiteners (fairness creams) are extremely popular, and actors in film and television industry are either light-skinned or portrayed as such through bright lights or post-production editing.

‘Dear Western Media, No Bad News About Us Please’

Even in the political arena, various politicians including the Indian Prime Minister, have talked about India moving away from the image of the land of ‘snake charmers’ to ‘mouse charmers’. ‘Mouse charmer’ here implies that India has a world-class IT industry, and Indian computer engineers are respected because of their impressive skills. Polls and articles about India from reputed western media outlets such The New York Times, Time magazine, The Economist, et al, prompt quick reactions not only from the Indian news consumers, but also by India media houses.

Any negative news about India results in scathing and anxious articles by Indian newspapers and media outlets

Towering Statues = Towering Global Status?

Recently, cabinet ministers and Indian news media outlets shared that a reader’s poll conducted by British Herald, a British magazine, declared Prime Minister Modi the most powerful leader in the world.

After some investigation, it was found that British Herald is an obscure magazine with extremely low web traffic rank, and is owned by a UK registered company whose director is a Kerala-based businessman, Ansif Ashraf. The fact that it is a British magazine was enough to excite Indian media houses and news consumers.

Although, the recent over-eagerness in building the tallest Indian statues might be political, it also stems from the desire to receive global recognition. When the sentence “the tallest statue in the world” is splashed across news media outlets around the world, it gives Indians great pride.

India’s Relentless Quest For Permanent UNSC Seat

India also desires a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council as it is among the most prestigious and influential forum on the world stage. Experts have discussed that India still lacks the economic prowess to be in this council as there are other strong contenders such as Germany and Japan.

India’s UN financial contribution of USD 23,253,808 in 2019 not only lags behind the permanent members, but also behind Germany and Japan. Even Turkey and the Netherlands contribute more financially than India does. India tries to compensate for this by sending large peacekeeping forces and experts. Although India’s aim to have a permanent seat is genuinely based on its sheer size, population, and GDP, the anxiety of influence still looms over Indian policymakers. They desire recognition and acceptance among the international community, that their time on the world stage has come. Another driving force might be that unlike its neighbour China, India is still not recognised as a world power.

Let’s Fix The Rot Within – Before Seeking Western Validation

In reality, it does not matter if India is developing or becomes a developed country: the average westerner will continue to associate it with terms such as “exotic,” “colorful,” “different,” and so on.

Since immigrating from India to the United States while in high school, I have encountered similar experience where people have expressed a stereotypical view of India, even though many of them are aware of India’s recent progress. Those who have personally been to India have often complained to me about slums, poverty, traffic, and unclean public spaces.

Westerners’ reactions to Indian films, military, food, malls, etc will not change the socioeconomic conditions in India. Slums, poverty and other social problems are very much part of Indian reality. Ignoring or shying away from them will not solve the problem. The focus should be on improving people’s standard of living and reducing social injustices. Competition with the world should be on development indicators, women’s rights, etc and not on superficialities such as the tallest statue or the biggest mall.

(Abhi Slathia (@Abhi_000000) is currently working for a Washington, DC-based peace-building organisation. He graduated with a Master’s degree in International Affairs with a focus on Comparative and Regional Studies (Asia-Pacific) from American University, Washington, D.C. His research interest areas include security in the Asia-Pacific, Indian politics culture, and development. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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