Global capitalism badly needs a Third World success story – a rags-to-riches tale that can wipe out all those bad memories of failed World Bank programmes and crippling IMF debt. And, according to comedian Sanjeev Bhaskar, India fits the bill perfectly.
The first episode of his new documentary series on India takes us to the country’s financial capital, Mumbai. Here we meet all manner of “colourful characters” that are presented as typical of modern India, such as Gautam Singhania, multi-millionaire boss of the Raymond clothing company, whose line in management bullshit could compete with the best of the West.
Offering Sanjeev his private helicopter as a means to bypass the “terrible traffic”, Singhania informs us that there is a new spirit in India today, one that says, “Hey – we can do it!”
To show just how widespread this spirit is – and without even a hint of irony – we are then taken to the Mumbai suburbs to meet an old man who spends his days collecting newspapers from middle class apartments, which he then sells for recycling.
We never get to hear from the man, or even learn his name – nor, for that matter, do we hear the names of any of the poor people we see in the film. But a nice middle class Mumbai housewife offers him to us and explains that he is the very essence of entrepreneurship.
Further along the recycling chain we meet the people who sort the rubbish from the apartments into different types of refuse – plastic, paper, tin, and old household goods.
Pointing to one of the labourers, who sits on the dirty ground that the apartment dwellers have allocated them, the housewife implores us to look. “That man has TWO mobile phones,” she says. “TWO phones?” replies Sanjeev incredulously. “But I’ve only got one. He’s more successful than me!”
A few minutes later, with Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing playing in the background, we join Sanjeev judging a beauty contest for wealthy housewives. Together with contest organiser Maureen Wadia, a publishing company boss, he attempts to explore the personalities of the contestants.
Maureen asks a semi-finalist if she has heard of Adolf Hitler. “I know he was from Germany,” she replies. “And I know he was a Taurus.”
The next question comes quickly. “So what would be your attitude to marital rape?” asks Maureen. The contestant flounders. “I don’t think it would be good,” she says.
I don’t know what programme makers thought we would learn from this exchange. In a country where the second class citizenship of women is one of the most important issues of the day, perhaps they thought they were giving a “fresh approach”, or maybe they just wanted to “show India as it is”.
Whatever the motive, by now this wretched documentary has moved from banal irritation into outright offensiveness.
Following the contest, for a brief few minutes, we are shown a different side of Mumbai – the slums that lie next to the skyscrapers, which are inhabited by millions. But there is not even the pretence of exploring the lives of these people, who make up the vast majority of Mumbai’s population.
Instead we are whisked away to Bangalore, India’s technology capital, and the gleaming campus of Infosys. In this model village we see how India is being reborn as a “global superpower”.
Just a few hours away from Bangalore lies the state of Andhra Pradesh. In the last few years thousands of farmers have committed suicide here as they are ruined by multinational agribusinesses.
But don’t expect them to make an appearance in this programme. They are part of the “old India”, and who wants to talk about that?
From Bangalore, we head south to Kerala. In the ancient port of Cochin we find that Chinese fishing nets, brought to India centuries ago, are dying out because there are no longer any fish to catch. “We will keep some of the nets going for the sake of the tourists,” says one of the owners. And that seems to be enough to satisfy Sanjeev.
In a pseudo-philosophical end piece, he talks about how Hinduism is about “a world of constant change – things will be broken, and from that things will emerge anew”. And with that insightful offering, we are told that next week, we will be in Pakistan.
I can hardly wait.
India With Sanjeev Bhaskar starts on BBC2 at 9pm on Monday 30 July. For more information on the BBC’s India & Pakistan season go to » www.bbc.co.uk/indiapakistan