A still from 'Roma'.
A still from 'Roma'.

Opinion | The rich can make great art on poverty but can’t end it

Empathy is the most powerful front for the rich to destroy ideas that make them uncomfortable

Unlike the contemporary Indian maid, who is on her fours when she mops the floor, even if the floor belongs to a conscientious liberal, a maid in the Mexico City of the early 1970s was given the luxury of a long-handle mop. This we see in the film Roma, a memoir of its director and producer Alfonso Cuarón.

The film, which is set in Cuarón’s childhood in Roma, a suburb of Mexico City, recounts a year in the life of a maid named Cleo. As in an affluent Indian home of today, everyone in little Cuarón’s household, including Cleo, assumes that she is invisible. But Cleo is in a much better place than a typical Indian maid of today.

She can sit on chairs and sofas, even on armrests. She gets whole days off and she is allowed dating, love and lovers. When she is pregnant, her boss herself takes her to see a doctor. There are bars where Cleo can go to dance with the poor. She does not need the masquerade of pilgrimage to have fun. Also, once the lady of the house tells Cleo what she would tell an equal woman: “No matter what they tell you—women, we are always alone."

It appears that a Mexican maid was widely regarded as a human.

I trust Cuarón’s depiction of a maid of that time in the Roma of the 1970s, but that is not because she is the subject of a slow art house film which has the time to show how a boiled egg is peeled. As an Indian who has suffered many films where the water boils forever as a woman slowly combs her hair and other such works of fraud by Indians that naive foreigners imagined was “reality", I know it is stupid to attach authenticity to a story just because nothing much happens in it.

I trust Cuarón because I have read accounts of Mexicans who do. Also, it is very important for the talented rich in a poor nation to take great pains to portray the poor with tenderness, craft and honesty.

In Gully Boy, an exquisite film by Zoya Akhtar, the setting of the Muslim lower-middle class in Mumbai is as authentic. Usually the portrayal of India’s roughness by urbane filmmakers, with the dramatic dialects and expletives, is as fictitious as Karan Johar’s imagination of curtains in a poor Indian home. But Gully Boy has a good grasp over the props of poverty and the rage of a talented boy embedded in it who has no recourse to useful parents, even though Akhtar herself is so favoured.

In an extremely poor society, the poor have a profound effect on the rich. It is hard for the most intelligent artists among the affluent to isolate themselves from the poor. Their soft heart creates beautiful art. But the soft heart of the rich, when it seeps out of art, is economically and politically useless; it is even harmful.

Empathy, which creates remarkable novels and films, is also the most powerful front for the middle class and the rich to influence economics and politics, and destroy ideas that make them uncomfortable. Hidden within empathy is the full force of self-obsession and self-interest.

Every Indian who is not poor is a poverty-alleviation expert. They have views on what the poverty line should be; whether the universal basic income is a good idea; how redistribution of wealth will end poverty; how the invisible hand of capitalism will end poverty. But what has reduced poverty in India is something else.

In Roma, one Professor Zovek appears in a dramatic scene, dressed in spandex. He is a cult figure for a group of right-wing youth who stand in geometric formations and train by waving sticks (does that sound familiar?). He did exist once. Very little is known of him but what interested me was that he was from an affluent family who wished to be a revolutionary.

Zovek was yet another man who was born to wealth in a poor nation, who deployed his soft heart and social equity to achieve the most common attempt at poverty alleviation—recruit the poor to fight authority on his behalf. How many times have we seen this?

Nationalists who hate communists; intellectuals who hate nationalists; all of them fighting each other through prescriptions of best poverty-alleviation methods. In the end, such revolutions end very badly for the poor.

Gully Boy hints at another powerful creation of the soft heart of the rich—the myth that college education will save the poor. The reality is that education is the way in which the elite preserve their club. For an overwhelming majority of the poor, college education is a waste of time and money. In the case of the film’s impoverished rapper, the sacred Indian religion of college degree and its promise of a dull job is a plain evil that almost robs him of his future in music.

The people who have proved to be the most useful to India’s poor have always been those who wished to overtly profit by transforming their lives—non-banking financial companies that replaced street moneylenders; cellphone manufacturers who made cheap computers; telecom tycoons who have made calls almost free; social media billionaires. And, politicians who will do anything to win elections, including actually doing good.

The American filmmaker and poet, Jonas Mekas, who died last month said, “In the very end, civilizations perish because they listen to their politicians and not to their poets." This is a complete lie. If only people knew the true character of all the poets and all the politicians; they will probably stop reading poetry but they will still vote.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’.

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