Tycoon tower: the 27-storey Antilia, Mumbai residence of Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani, has come to symbolise Indian wealth disparity. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Slumdog billionaires: the rise of India’s tycoons

New non-fiction books by the novelists Arundhati Roy and Rana Dasgupta examine India’s troubled relationship with capitalism and the blurred links between political and business elites. 

Capital: a Portrait of 21st-Century Delhi
Rana Dasgupta
Canongate, 512pp, £25

Capitalism: a Ghost Story
Arundhati Roy
Haymarket Books, 125pp, $14.95

Midway through India’s recent election, I watched Meera Sanyal talk at a campaign event about a crisis in her country’s system of capitalism. It seemed an odd topic, given that Sanyal spent almost her entire professional career in finance. But late last year she quit her job as a senior banker, joined the newly formed anti-corruption Aam Aadmi (or “common man”) Party (AAP), and announced plans to run for parliament in the south of Mumbai, the financial capital.

India’s troubled capitalism was a central theme of the poll, which ended on 16 May with an overwhelming victory for Narendra Modi of the opposition centre-right Bharatiya Janata Party. When voting began in early April, the AAP launched a series of attacks on the close links between India’s business and political elites, alleging that big conglomerates had received regulatory favours in return for funnelling money to the two establishment parties: Modi’s BJP and the then-ruling Congress. Yet, in trying to distil the anger felt by many at the behaviour of the wealthy, Sanyal turned not to a company, nor to an individual, but to a house: a giant residential skyscraper in Mumbai called Antilia, which belongs to the billionaire industrialist Mukesh Ambani, the richest man in India.

“You walk around the streets of this city, and the amount of rage at Antilia has to be heard to be believed,” Sanyal said, detailing allegations that the 27-storey building had been built on land owned by a local orphanage but bought for well below market rates – allegations its owner refutes. As it was built, the high-rise mansion – a vertical palace, fit for a modern maharaja – came to symbolise an Indian elite set apart. “At first I just thought of it as a terribly ugly structure, a blight on the face of Mumbai, but you see what people say about it,” Sanyal said. “It’s not good for the country when you have crony capitalism of that nature.”

Raising these concerns did little to help the Aam Aadmi’s cause: Sanyal lost easily and the party won only a handful of seats, in a result even its leaders admitted was a great disappointment. Modi, who was sworn in as prime minister on 26 May, won in part because of his own promises to tackle corruption. On the stump, he lambasted his Congress opponents for presiding over a spate of rollicking scandals as well as plummeting growth. He has since pledged action on both fronts. Yet even if he makes early progress, India faces a more profound problem, of which Antilia is just the most visible symbol: a rapid increase in national wealth that appears to be enjoyed disproportionately by figures such as Ambani and his fellow heads of family-controlled businesses, leaving behind a country that is becoming more troubled and less equal.

Such is Antilia’s status as the icon of India’s new Gilded Age that it is hardly surprising to see it pop up at the opening of Arundhati Roy’s Capitalism: a Ghost Story. Best known for her early novel The God of Small Things, Roy has become a strident political activist and critic of India’s system of government, battling for causes ranging from Kashmiri separatism to caste and environmental justice. The supposed villainy of India’s tycoon class is her latest target, as she attacks the perfidy of industrial giants such as the Tata, Birla and Jindal groups of companies – as well as Reliance Industries, the conglomerate with interests from oil refining to retail whose profits funded Ambani’s luxurious home.

Reliance “is one of a handful of corporations that run India”, Roy says, through a mechanism she characterises as “gush-up” economics, rather than the more familiar conservative, trickle-down variant. “A Gush-Up concentrates wealth on to the tip of a shining pin on which billionaires pirouette; tidal waves of money crash through the institutions of democracy – the courts, the parliament – as well as the media, seriously compromising their ability to function,” she writes. “The noisier the carnival around election, the less sure we are that democracy really exists.”

At fewer than 150 pages, Capitalism is more a polemical essay than a book, albeit one that makes a fair point about wealth. It cannot be denied that the fortunes of India’s 1 per cent are rising. By some measures, the country comes close to rivalling Russia for the concentration of financial resources in the hands of its cadre of billionaires. Yet Roy provides an uneven blast against this trend. Her style is grating, especially her fondness for capitalised sloganeering – “the Gush-Up Gospel”, “the Privatisation of Everything”, and so on. The procession of the book’s argument is curious, too, moving from commentary on the tycoons into detours attacking the role of foreign charities in India, as well as domestic companies that set up less-than-sincere corporate social responsibility projects. Of all the faults displayed by India’s business elite, these can hardly be the most severe.

Roy is equally critical of the anti-corruption movements that gave birth to the AAP over the past three years, describing the party as an essentially middle-class affair that did little to challenge corporate power. This seems hard-hearted, especially as the AAP’s leader, Arvind Kejriwal, has become the country’s most trenchant critic of business corruption – precisely the type of crime that Roy abhors.

India’s wealthy industrialists are unques­tionably powerful, but Roy’s depiction of them as wielding unbridled influence seems at best half accurate. Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance is a case in point: it operates a giant gas field in eastern India that is stuck in endless regulatory delays. Where once India’s tycoons may have been unfettered, they often seem constrained now, not least because of those same middle-class anti-corruption campaigns that Roy disdains, which have made it more difficult for business to work the political system to its advantage.

Ultimately, however, the problem with Roy’s account is her unwillingness to acknowledge any of the good that has come with India’s recent economic development: the tens of millions moved out of basic poverty, or the rising incomes spent on education, housing and food, as well as television sets and fridges. A fairer description would note that these benefits have emerged through a process that has proved wrenching, uneven and environmentally problematic, as a long-closed society opened up in two short decades.

Where Roy’s work is slight and frequently shrill, Rana Dasgupta’s Capital provides a larger and more thoughtful canvas from which to show India’s upheavals. Dasgupta moved from New York to India in 2000, having grown up in England, his journey the reverse of the one undertaken a generation earlier by his father, who left a precarious life in his home country to become a professionally successful immigrant in Britain. Capital is also the author’s first work of non-fiction, after one previous collection of stories and a novel.

Dasgupta’s concern is partly geographic, because he moved to New Delhi, India’s most sprawling metropolis. Here, empires have come and gone, from Mughal courts and British colonialism to Nehruvian autar­chy. Yet in the past decade there has been an especially forceful tearing down and refashioning as a swift but muddled growth-fuelled expansion has taken place. Capital is equally concerned with the psychological effect of these changes and more broadly with the tide of money that has flooded through the country since the liberalisation of its economy. This has left its upper middle classes in particular suffering from a kind of developmental vertigo, which Dasgupta describes simply as “trauma”.

Delhi is a depressingly appropriate lens through which to view modern India. As the national economy has grown, so the importance of political power, and the financial rewards for controlling that power, have grown, too. Thus, the capital has acquired a dubious double reputation. It is a locus for colossal corruption, a place where fortunes are amassed ruthlessly and efficiently by back-scratching politicians and industrialists. Yet it is also marked by inaction and decline: an Indian synonym for Washington, a place known for its useless dysfunction.

Delhi is also the most obvious focus for the brewing rage that Dasgupta sees as a response to the repeated rents in the fabric of India, a problem most starkly evident in a series of high-profile sexual attacks. “Violence against women in the changing world of post-liberalisation India came not just from a variety of uncultured misfits . . . it came from the mainstream, and from every social class,” he writes. The old family-based culture struggled to adapt to the speedy shifts in gender attitudes brought about by economic reform.

Dasgupta’s style is thickly descriptive, often devoting entire chapters to individ­ual conversations or single scenes as he journeys around the city meeting minor tycoons, troubled wives, worried hospital patients and impoverished migrants. This approach occasionally leaves his narrative feeling ponderous. Nor is he an economist, and so Capital’s interest in finance is often more sweeping than precise, leaving a sense that the book’s undeniable distaste for Indian modernity stems in part from its author’s essentially conservative concern with the inappropriate influence of money.

For all that, Capital is a remarkably ele­gant work whose rich style and sweep often brings to mind V S Naipaul’s A Million Mutinies Now, which provided a similarly engrossing portrait of pre-liberalisation urges in India during the 1980s. It is also perhaps the best-written description of India’s changing face since Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City a decade ago: a book that was a hymn to modern India’s other great and troubling city, Mumbai.

Yet, for all the financial energy of Mumbai, India’s ambitions for justice and development will be realised only through political renewal in Delhi. Here, both Roy and Dasgupta sound pessimistic, the latter occasionally echoing the views of another recent, much-discussed book on capital, by the French economist Thomas Piketty. The likes of India “missed out on international capitalism’s mid-20th century – its moment of inclusiveness and hope”, Dasgupta writes. He suggests these places now have little prospect of rescuing citizens scarred by their nation’s dizzying transition.

This conclusion may be too gloomy. For all Delhi’s dysfunction, there are signs of promise in its recent anti-corruption and anti-rape movements, and the efforts of some of its admittedly flawed democratic institutions, from the Supreme Court to government auditors. That these efforts have been patchy only serves to underline what is at stake following the election. Having won, Narendra Modi faces profound choices, not only about the best way to restart stuttering national growth, but also about how to move the country on to a more egalitarian, less traumatic path to development.

In his first days as prime minister-elect, Modi spoke movingly of his plans, saying his government would “be dedicated towards the poor”. But although he is fond of fulminating against corruption, he has so far shown few signs of wanting fundamentally to reorder the broken relationship between Indian business and politics, or to curb the power of the tycoons. That does not mean that such things are impossible, however. America’s original Gilded Age was followed by a progressive era, which tamed monopolies and gradually developed a welfare state. The same things can happen in India. At one point Dasgupta notes that the country’s middle classes often try to imagine ways of improving the lot of the vast Indian underclass – only to give up, confounded by the complexity of the task. For their country, this would be the worst outcome of all.

James Crabtree is the Financial Times’s Mumbai correspondent

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

Almeida Theatre
Show Hide image

Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.