For those whose appetite for India was whetted by a summer-long series of spectacular exhibits of ancient art and folk crafts, public television this week offers its own salute to the "Festival of India" with seven programs that include Jack Anderson's one-dimensional portrait of "Rajiv's India" and a remarkable look at the lives of women who dance in a sleazy Bombay nightclub.
The common denominator of most of the broadcasts is an attempt to capture the essence of India, a South Asian nation of more than 750 million people who speak 16 different languages and worship millions of individual gods. Like the work of most of us who have tried to capsule India, none of the TV shows succeeds on its own, and together they probably form too large a mouthful for even dedicated Indiaphiles to digest at once.
What they do capture, though, is the wonderful color of a country where snake charmers exist side by side with nuclear reactors and where a space capsule is carried out of the laboratory on a bullock cart. (When I left after a three-year assignment in India, my crated household goods were taken by bullock cart to the 747 that carried them back to Washington.)
Contrasts abound. India is the world's largest democracy, yet it has been governed through most of its 38 years of independence by a dynasty founded by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru. It brags of having the third largest pool of scientists and engineers and the world's 10th largest economy, but also ranks among the 11 poorest countries in the world, with an average per capita income of less than $300. More than 60 percent of the people neither read nor write.
"Rajiv's India," the first of a series on world and national affairs by the well-known muckraking Washington columnist Jack Anderson, appeared last night on Channels 26, 32 and Maryland Public Television stations, and will be repeated at noon today on Channel 26. Last night's telecast was sandwiched between two other explorations of India -- a repeat of the "NOVA" broadcast describing the 1983 experiment that used an American satellite to beam television direct to villages and an hour-long look at "Spiritual India." In addition, Channel 32 showed "India Unveiled," the first of a four-part, made-in-India series on the country's history.
Three more programs are on tap tonight, on both channels. At 8, there's "India Speaks," a flawed documentary that concentrates on the country's vast and rising middle class; at 9, "Chachaji: My Poor Relation," Ved Mehta's view of his impoverished but happy uncle; and at 10, "India Cabaret," the most daring of the group, which tells much about India by zooming in on a tiny slice of its life.
Both "Rajiv's India" and "India Speaks" gloss over the seamier facts of Indian life to focus on the positive, especially as the country enters its second year under the dynamic, forward-looking Rajiv Gandhi, who took over as prime minister after his mother, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated Oct. 31, 1984.
The best parts of Anderson's "Rajiv's India" are the calm, reflective comments of Gandhi, the airline pilot who was forced into politics by the death of his brother, Sanjay. Anderson calls him "charismatic" and compares him to John F. Kennedy, which perhaps is an overstatement. But the columnist paints a true picture of the contrast between Indira Gandhi's "dogmatic" style and the "politics of conciliation" followed by Rajiv Gandhi. This new style has led to improved relations with India's South Asian neighbors and the calming of domestic disputes in the Punjab and Assam.
Neither "Rajiv's India," which was produced and directed by Barbara Newman, nor "India Speaks" focuses on the mass of India's poor, people who earn less than $1 a day and live on the sidewalks of all major cities. "Rajiv's India" doesn't skip the poor; it shows the bleeding hands of bonded laborers and the cries of a woman so malnourished that she cannot breast-feed her baby. What is missing, though, is the concern of many serious Indian politicians, academics and journalists that Gandhi's policies may neglect the poor, favoring instead the more assertive middle class.
"India Speaks," produced by Paula Lee Haller for New York's WNET, attempts to profile that growing middle class of 70 to 100 million -- more than the population of either France or West Germany -- which Gandhi's advisers believe has become large enough to propel the country out of its poverty.
Its ragged transitions, however, detract from the stated point of the documentary, which is to challenge the image of India as a complex of rural villages (which it is; 80 percent of its people live in 500,000 of them) or as the vestige of the British Raj.
The surprising sleeper among the documentaries is "India Cabaret," which was produced by the Indian filmmaker Mira Nair and explores the lives of strippers in a Bombay nightclub. It contains remarkable slices of Indian life, including revealing interviews with cabaret regular Vijay Pujara and his wife, who says she can't stop him from spending his nights watching the dancing girls.
"You married me. You have to wait for me," he says.
His wife is the good Indian woman whose submissive attitude and traditional virtues form a perfect contrast to the lives of the dancers, who earn their living by flaunting their sex.
Through the voices of the wife and the dancing girls, "India Cabaret" provides as effective a peek at Indian people and their outlook on life as do the more far-ranging documentaries.