I watched Cheeni Kum yesterday, and while I enjoyed it, I could not suppress my thoughts on the irony of the whole situation. We are a country with a history of young girls (still children sometimes) being married off to older men for a bride price - something that, even after being outlawed, happens with disturbing regularity in rural India - and here we have an entire film dedicated to the romance between a young woman and a much older man, and the difficulties they face on their way to getting married, with the theme being labelled as 'bold' in the Indian media.
I am not questioning the relevance of the film, rather who it is relevant to. Given the manner in which the subject was dealt with, and the location where it is set, it is a reasonable assumption to make that it was made with India's diaspora and its urban elite in mind. And they did their job well, the denizens of India's rural landscape would find alien the film's language, moral qualms, the problems of its characters and its so called 'boldness'.
The changes that happened over the last twenty years in India's urban centres happened too fast, and increasingly, the gap between the urban elite and rural population looks too wide for any significant sympathetic understanding and exchange of each other's perspectives to take place. The urban elite constantly live with one foot outside India, and the rural population (I am including recent migrants to cities here), even with the attempts made to increase access to internet, still live in the same small world that they lived in twenty years ago (a few years ago, I was talking to a few of my father's subordinates at their dam site. I told them that I lived in England, two hours from London, so one of them asks me, so you live in Paris then?). The rural population, for the most part, only has access to myths of urban life and the foreign lands that city dwellers concern themselves with.
The urban elite is properly outraged by the farmers' suicides, child marriages, honour killings...that happen in the villages, but this outrage is the same as the one reserved for the civil war in Libya or state suppression in China: it is news yes, but it is not felt as something immediate, not felt as something happening in 'our' society. A migrant worker once told me how he had saved up for a year working in the city, took a sizeable loan, and with a sense of achievement had a bore-well dug on his land back home (he hit water after three attempts). But, a more influential neighbour, now knowing where the water was, dug a deeper bore-well not five feet from his, stealing all his water. Crying, he told me how he had contemplated suicide. I listened, and I sympathised with him, but the problem itself was totally alien to me.
I am not saying that the urban elite do not encounter poverty and misery - there is plenty of both to go around in Indian cities - but they relate to it as a purely urban problem, they don't associate it with rural poverty. They live in the city, with an eye on the outside world, and rural India is some place else.
I am sure a decade or two from now the situation will be different. Access to information, becoming easier everyday, hopefully, will help bridging the gap between the two. But until then, they will have to live with not really understanding each other.