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Empty promises: how 600 million young people in India have been missold the future

Mumbai’s young Indians occupy a world of loans and get-rich-quick schemes. Are these the losers of globalisation?

Just over a decade ago, I rolled off the plane at Delhi, itching to meet a man I didn’t know. By the mid-2000s, reports were piling up about India’s new middle class. How numerous they were; how successful; how spend-happy; how vulgar. They were the future, claimed the Western press. They were throwbacks, sniffed family friends. They certainly intrigued me. Now I had a stopover in the capital and a friend of a friend had arranged for me to spend the evening with one of these exotic novelties.

To reach Vikas (not his real name), I had to take a cab out of Delhi into another mini-city. You may never have heard of Gurgaon, but you have almost certainly talked to it. As one of the call-centre hubs of the world, its office cubicles are stuffed with young graduates staying up late into the night to field your queries about that lost credit card or this overpayment on a gas bill.

We drove deep into a sprawling housing estate called Malibu Towne. The roads were un-subcontinentally clear and peppered with signs that referred to the Pacific. Yet no trace of California came off Vikas. His English was more effective than my Hindi but still his wife had to act as our interpreter.

Born in a village in the Punjab, he’d come to Delhi with nothing. After a few years struggling, he’d landed a job as an aviation engineer with one of the domestic airlines now booming on the subcontinent. This story of self-madeness was reflected in the home, which was mainly decorated with poster-sized photos of him, his wife and child. Unusually for an Indian household, no parents or grandparents were on reverential display; only the life he’d achieved.

Yet everything about Vikas’s world was new. Until well into the 1990s, there was no domestic flight sector worth speaking of – just one state-owned company, Indian Airlines, whose air stewards greeted passengers with disappointed frowns. This gated community, where it was forever Baywatch o’clock, was only 10 years old. Even Gurgaon township (now officially Gurugram), with its central strip so full of shops that locals dubbed it Mall Road, had as recently as the 1980s been mere farmland.

 Our evening wound up at China White. In London that was a bar outside which tabloid snappers hung around, while inside Premier League footballers racked up large tabs and showbiz diary exclusives. Here in Gurgaon, it was a family “hangout”. As Vikas and his wife gingerly picked their way through the mocktail list, reading aloud the ingredients like they were entries in the OED, it became clear that they had yet to claim their new world as their home.

These were the years when men like Vikas were posterboys for the liberalised economy, when government ministers boasted of “India Shining” and newspapers began scouring Fortune magazine rich lists for Indian entrants. Vikas’s successes formed part of the dream India promised itself could come true for everybody.

One simple way to understand today’s India is that that dream hasn’t materialised – yet it keeps being offered up. That explains the electoral rage that helped propel Narendra Modi to power; it also captures how the prime minister promises that achhe din (good days) are just around the corner.

This unbridgeable gulf is the subject of Snigdha Poonam’s book. As she notes, in 2016 9.2 million young Indians sat entrance exams for 18,252 railway positions, while 19,000 competed for 114 public sector jobs in one small town. “Thousands of college graduates, some armed with engineering and MBA degrees,” applied to be a sweeper.

A likeably modest writer, Poonam has nevertheless written a brave and unusual debut. India is a huge country that attracts grand theories, yet Dreamers is a collection of miniatures – essays about a handful of young Indians. In a publishing industry short on venues for long-form reporting in English, that is her specialism. And where other writers often squint at their indigenous subjects as if they were samples under a microscope, Poonam writes with a closeness that can be uncomfortable.

 Like her interviewees, she comes from mofussil, or provincial, north India: “They saw me as half-outsider, half-insider. It wasn’t a great place to occupy.” Interviewees demand she buys them train tickets, even pay their car insurance. She hangs around with aggressive young men until the hours grow small, and the text reeks of perspiration and stale cooking oil. The reader can just imagine the safety precautions taken.

All those years of hanging around have yielded a study rich in broken dreams. We meet Mohammed Azhar, who grew up in a two-bed house with nine brothers and sisters, and believes, “I have everything one needs to be a star”. Tall and handsome, he learns to model by watching catwalk shows on YouTube and turns a corner of his bedroom into an exercise zone. Yet he is ripped off by fashion-event organisers, by film producers, by stockbrokers. Savings disappear, debts mount up and he goes slowly under. He ends up in Mumbai, not getting called back to auditions and peddling cheap bangles to get by.

This is the dreamers’ landscape: get-rich-quick schemes, loans and the crap self-help paperbacks that now engulf once-decent bookshops. The bright ones work out they also need English to get ahead.

Nearly two centuries ago, the British politician Thomas Macaulay urged the creation of “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”. India now has 100 million speakers of English, most of whom are not using it to leaf through Edward Gibbon but to land a better job. Poonam meets Moin Khan, who was a 17-year-old milkman until he learned of free English coaching. In class, he fretted that the students from “respectable” families could “smell the cowdung on him”. To practise speaking the language, he rang random call centres and in broken English told the headsetted strangers “everything that came to my mind – my friends, my family, my dreams”.

Khan wanted a call-centre job but his English wasn’t up to scratch – so, 10 years later, he teaches the language from 7am to 11pm. His students hope that a few months’ practice will deliver them the financial stability of a decent job. An intelligent man, Khan disdains his own wares: “In India, we are still obsessed with English-medium school, English-medium college… We are embarrassed about everything Indian – our culture, our traditions.”

Still, it pays. Khan has become a seller in India’s vast spoken-English pyramid scheme – and Poonam catches him at just the moment he looks down in pity at the suckers below. This becomes a running theme. Failing as a model, Azhar tries putting on runway shows – taking commissions from wannabe models. To start her career, Sona Kapoor gets into a Delhi call centre – where she rings up other Indians asking if they want a change of job, then scams money off them for fictitious vocational training. She shrugs: “You think the people who run these call centres are making so much money every day, you might as well make some of it while you are here.”

 What happens when 600 million young Indians realise they’ve been conned? They will join “the losers of globalisation”, argues Poonam, the “leftover youths whose
anger is transforming world politics”. She cites the rage-filled, vein-bulging nihilism that imposed Trump on America and Brexit on Britain. This stretches both too far and not far enough. Too far, because much of this anger pre-dates globalisation and runs alongside it. I remember upper-caste young Hindu men, of much the same type who take up chapters of Dreamers, massing on the streets in 1990, when the government decided to implement positive discrimination in
public sector jobs for those from lower castes. For decades, India’s weak state (one that collects proportionately less tax even than Russia) and its paradoxically large bureaucracy has been unable to deliver on the promises it has made to citizens.

Up until the mid-1990s, right-wingers could look at India and tut over how much better it would do if only it would embrace globalised capital. Well, now it has – and Poonam would be right to bid us look at the disturbing results: more unequal growth than America and even angrier politics; an economy characterised by rip-off middlemen and Ponzi mania – which can’t just be laughed at from a Britain run by a finance class and addicted to ever-rising house prices. In its depiction of the triumph of deceit over industriousness, and the fury brewing in small towns, Dreamers will make you worry about the future of India. But it should also leave you wondering about the prospects for capitalism, in what is now one of the world’s largest capitalist economies. 

Aditya Chakrabortty is senior economics correspondent for the Guardian

Dreamers: How Young Indians are Changing the World
Snigdha Poonam
Hurst, 224pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war

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“He keeps asking me, is it sad to be an old woman?”: sparring with the French director Claire Denis

The provocative auteur talks to Ryan Gilbey about sex at 71, her obsession with Juliette Binoche and why his questions are “maybe a little bit pretentious.”

The 71-year-old French director Claire Denis is pocket-sized, but then so is a grenade. Welcoming me into her London hotel room, where a single lamp provides the only resistance against the fading light, she gets straight down to business. First there is the English-language title of her latest film, Let the Sunshine In. “I’m very unhappy with it.” She wanted A Bright Sun In. There is scarcely time to point out to her that this brisk, playful movie, about a middle-aged Parisian artist (Juliette Binoche) searching for love, is undamaged by the mistranslation. Denis has moved on, and is pondering the post-screening Q&A session she’ll take part in later. “I hate Q&As! You see a film, you don’t want to ask questions. All those stupid explanations.” She touches her throat, still tender from an operation three weeks ago. “The doctor removed a virus.” Really? You mean a cyst, or a tumour? “No!” she says crossly. “A virus.” Then she softens: “It was like coral from the ocean.” There is an odd glint in her eye, fearful but unmistakably titillated.

That look is there in her work, too. No other living director, not even Pedro Almodóvar or Catherine Breillat, has quite her knack for untangling the mysteries of sexual desire, or the role played in it by gender, race and class. It is the warmth, inquisitiveness and mischief in her films that make them so seductive. She is not above being shocking, as she was in the revenge thriller Bastards, set in a world of sexual exploitation where unspeakable acts are committed with a corncob, or Trouble Every Day, in which horny vampires nip out for a bite after sex. She is at her best, though, in a gentler or more thoughtful register.

Two fine films at either end of her career have dissected the tensions between white colonialists and black Africans. Her 1988 debut, Chocolat, set in colonial Cameroon, drew on her own childhood as the daughter of a civil servant; the family moved around French West Africa before Denis returned in her teens to Paris, her birthplace, to finish her education. She revisited the subject in her 2010 drama White Material, starring Isabelle Huppert as the owner of a coffee plantation in an unnamed turbulent African country. Unable to see that she is part of the problem, she continues making coffee while the nation burns.

Denis’s favourite among her films might be 35 Shots of Rum, an elliptical study of people of African descent living in a Parisian suburb. She retracts the remark. “I don’t have a favourite. Which is yours? Tell me.” That’s easy. Beau Travail (1999) which transposes Billy Budd (both the Melville novel and the Benjamin Britten opera) to a Foreign Legion post in Djibouti. Like much of her work, it has little dialogue. Why give an actor a monologue when character can be more elegantly expressed in shots of him fastidiously ironing his uniform or hurling his body around an empty dancefloor to “The Rhythm of the Night” by Corona?

Denis swoons. “Ah, Beau Travail. We had Benjamin Britten playing on these tiny loudspeakers. I was sleeping two hours a night. We were on the edge! It was great. I loved my 15 guys. And the real Foreign Legion wanted to stop us.” She mimes someone peering through binoculars. “They thought we were shooting a gay porno movie.”

You can understand the error. Much of the fascination of Beau Travail stems from its unusual gender dynamic: it’s an intensely homoerotic reverie in which many of the core personnel (not just Denis but her cinematographer and editor) happen to be female. As far back as the 1996 Nénette et Boni, about a young pizza-seller smitten with a female baker, Denis was complicating the audience’s point-of-view. We hear the oversexed fellow recounting his breathless fantasies, most of which revolve around the things he wants to do to the buxom baker with his “big French stick”. What we see, however, is an extended shot of his bare torso, the camera admiring the magnificent slopes of his shoulders and the play of light on his mahogany skin. The desirer has become the desired.

As her latest film demonstrates, Denis is an equal opportunities sensualist. Let the Sunshine In, wordier than we have come to expect from her, is an unabashed celebration of Binoche. “What brings everything together is Juliette’s frankness and strength. We were having lunch one day and I caught a glimpse of her cleavage. I said, ‘Juliette, I want to show what a sexy woman you are. Every shot in the film I am going to show your cleavage. Your legs, your feet, your hands, a short skirt, high heels, leather jacket.’ She is sexier than any young girl on the red carpet.”

Denis, too, is wearing a leather jacket. Her vanilla hair is full of kinks, her tiny buttonhole eyes darting and alert. She sniffs the air. “Am I dreaming or can I smell a joint?” She squints at the window, which looks out onto a dingy Soho back-street, and inhales deeply. “Such a nice smell…”

I steer her back to Binoche. The pair went straight from finishing Let the Sunshine In to their next collaboration, the intimate intergalactic story High Life, which is exactly the way Denis likes it. She can’t bear letting go of her actors. “In life I am maybe not possessive enough. But in film – so much.” Directing Huppert in White Material, she was forever touching the actor’s hair, petting her almost, telling her: “I want to take you home with me.” She hates it when someone she has worked with appears in another director’s movie. “I get jealous. You spend two months looking so closely at them that you can tell if a single eyelash is out of place. Then they are gone.”

 Sensual: Denis with leading lady Juliette Binoche. Credit: Francois G. Durand/Getty

High Life, Denis’s first movie in English as well as her first with special effects, throws her together with another cinematic phenomenon – the actor Robert Pattinson, currently doing a bang-up job of distancing himself from the Twilight series that made his name. Pattinson, a long-time Denis fan, has called High Life her “craziest” film and described the director as a “punk”. She looks aghast. “My craziest? No. His, maybe. Well, there is some craziness in it but I won’t tell you where. Yes, Robert said many times he was afraid because I was like a punk. I am a simple person. I just try to communicate simply.” High Life also brought her into the orbit of Zadie Smith and her husband Nick Laird. “They didn’t write anything,” she explains. “I met with them because I wanted more than just a translation of the French script. But they felt there was no space for their own vision.” (At the time of writing, Smith and Laird are still listed as its co-writers on IMDb and Wikipedia.) The movie will feature music by the British band Tindersticks, whose frontman, Stuart Staples, has been working with Denis on and off for years. My suggestion that their gorgeous scores are the glue between her movies prompts her angriest objection yet.

“Glue? No, it is not glue! Glue holds things together. Music is there to be like the soul.”

I say that I meant it in the same way that Nino Rota’s music connects Fellini’s films.

She sits back in her chair, eyeing me suspiciously. “Hmm. I will ask Stuart. But it is maybe a little bit pretentious.”

What we can agree on is that Let the Sunshine In explores a subject overlooked by most cinema: the role of love and sex in the lives of older women. While Denis was shooting the film, her mother died at the age of 94. “She was very clear-minded, still interested in sex and attraction.” One night, she fell out of bed and Denis had to enlist a strapping young Italian from a nearby pizza joint – it could be a scene from one of her films – to come to the rescue. He scooped the old woman up in his arms and slipped her back into bed as though sliding a pizza into the oven. “Once he was gone, my mother looked up and said, ‘He was so good-looking!’”

Is it harder for women to express their sexuality as they get older? Denis thinks not. “It is worse sometimes for men. They are so afraid to not get a hard-on.” We can always use Viagra, I suggest. She scoffs. “That’s no fun. Better that I use a piece of wood or buy a sex toy. I think it’s humiliating for a man to take Viagra. It’s so good to be together as a couple and both of you can feel the hard-on going and coming back and going again. The smell of sex coming in, coming out.”

She has been married once and is now divorced. The ring she wears was given to her by “the man I live with. The man I love.” They have no children. “I decided at 39 I didn’t want to be a mother. No regrets, no crying. Maybe because my own mother was not so happy to be one. She told me, ‘You don’t need to be a mother!’ She was so free.”

Only when she sees a photograph of herself does Denis realise she is ageing. “Inside, not at all.” I ask if she notices that she is treated any differently now she is 71. “Sometimes when I’m walking or riding my bicycle, I’ll hear a guy whistle and then he passes me and sees my face and says, ‘Oh, sorry!’” She laughs. “Maybe from the back I’m better.” And is she happy? “With getting older? It’s a disaster. It’s a wreck. To be able to stay up for three nights without sleep, to get so drunk you are in a coma – these things I miss the most. On the other hand, my body is able to move, I still have feelings and I’m making films.”

She has to prepare for the dreaded Q&A now. The PR assistant hovers nearby. “I overheard something about joints and Viagra,” he says. “Claire, were you incriminating yourself?”

She jabs a finger in my direction like a scolded child trying to shift the blame. “He kept asking me, ‘Is it sad to be an old woman?’”

I protest that this wasn’t quite how I phrased it. “You raised the question many times,” she says, sniggering naughtily.

“Well, you’re not so young either. And you will suffer, too.” She takes my hand in hers, which is warm and firm, and musters her sweetest smile. “So fuck you,” she says. 

Let The Sunshine In is released on 20 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge