Minning Town: Not on Netflix
An intricate picture of the Chinese nation and state
We are in the midst of an unprecedented and profound crisis. Our nation is suffering from inequality levels that have not been seen since pre-independence British times. The elite 10% of the Indian population owns 77% of total national wealth. Adding to this, we have suffered a pandemic that is perhaps a once in a century event. The masses of the poor and hungry in India are living in uncertainty day to day.
However, many young people of our nation have fallen prey to the Western myth of individual success and celebrity. The children of the upper middle and middle classes look to escape the hungry masses and move to Europe and America. Many work soul-crushing corporate jobs, and watch Netflix to numb themselves in the evenings. In poorer sections of society the youth look to Bollywood and Hollywood for models, and we are all consumed by attention-seeking on social media.
Art, music, and culture are not just entertainment, they have the power to change the values of a society, and redefine the direction of people’s lives. After the freedom struggle this was perhaps best exemplified by organizations such as the Progressive Writers movement, and the literature that came out of it.
But Bollywood too played a progressive role, portraying the struggles of ordinary working person in movies such as Dharti ke Lal, Do Bhiga Zameen, Mera Naam Joker and Aawara. The lyrics written by poets like Sahir Ludhiyanvi, Shailendra and Kaifi Aazmi that accompanied these reflected struggle, and deeper philosophy that drew on Indian civilizational roots. It was a cultural and political renaissance.
Today, even those films that show the life of the poor portray them either as steeped in pathos, deserving of pity by the guilty rich, or as desperate, ruthless, violent individuals vying to be all that the rich represent. Their portrayal does not talk of them as human, with aspirations but also contradictions, and wanting a better future for their children. Almost never are they shown as embodying sacrifice, struggle and strength.
If our own westward looking film-makers and musicians were not enough, Netflix and Prime represent a new front of cultural warfare by the West against the rest of the world. It is no secret that American movies and culture are an important way for Western domination in the world to make itself welcome. At a time when India is a crucial part of the West’s plan to counter Chinese influence in the world, media giants like Netflix, Amazon and even Facebook and Twitter seek to further alienate the educated middle and upper middle classes from the masses of Indian people.
Even as our own artists embrace the West to the detriment of the Indian poor, Chinese cultural production in this time is bringing back the values of Hindi movies of the 1950s to the mainstream. This year marks the centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, and the Chinese state has commissioned 100 cultural productions as part of its celebrations. One TV series in particular, Minning Town, is worth note for Indian audiences.
Minning Town tells the story of poverty alleviation in Ningxia, China. The protagonist of the story is Ma Defu, an idealistic young cadre employed by the government to enforce the migration of villagers from poor areas in the mountains to the newly established Minning Town. The villagers have lived in poverty for generations, and the show depicts their conditions with empathy and adequate tragedy.
The children want to escape the mountains, and families eat potatoes meal after meal. But the Gobi desert, where Minning Town is located, is harsh. The town lacks basic infrastructure like irrigation and housing and is plagued by sandstorms. The villagers, despite living in abject poverty, want to return to their ancestral homes, and it is up to Ma De Fu to keep their morale and hope up till Minning Town can see development.
The story goes on to detail the many trials and tribulations of the relocated villagers as they try to establish farms and businesses that could lift them out of poverty. Many characters are introduced: the rough father of De Fu, Han Shui, gentle and quietly strong Shui Hua, rash and youthful De Bao, young and aspirational Mai Miao, and the sensitive and kind schoolteacher Chong Li.
In these characters you see the various facets of poverty: how it hardens a man, the strain it puts on relationships, how it forces parents to make difficult and heart wrenching decisions, how it causes the tragic loss of the potential of children. In them you see the grace of women who hold up their families through cruel and undeserved suffering, and the quiet resolve of men who have seen too many people crippled by the demands of poverty.
The characters in Minning Town show universal human traits: the ambition and rashness of youth, the joy and innocent eagerness of children, and the tenderness and uncertainty of young love. The show puts the lives of the poor at the center of its story, and in myriad, rich and glorious colors, paints them as human.
Mining Town also paints a compelling and subtle picture of the Chinese state, and the Chinese Communist Party. Their portrayal is not something that can be dismissed as crude propaganda.
The story shows the contradictions between the different levels of the state, and problems encountered when central plans are implemented in specific conditions. It talks of corruption in the party, but also of its idealistic and driven cadre. It shows the difficulties that arise from nation building in a mixed system with both planning and private enterprise.
Minning Town is also gripping because it paints an intricate picture of the Chinese national project. There is fundamental hope in this project: that if the Chinese, as a people, come together, they can change Chinese society for the better and even make a contribution to human civilization as a whole.
This was a fundamental belief of our own freedom struggle. The national movement against the British had forged a unity amongst the Indian people which was capable of carrying forward the project of building a new society free from poverty, disease and illiteracy. The struggle gave us as a people a vision for the future, but also made contributions to the world in the methods of nonviolent resistance and the legacy of a principled politics based on human uplift.
Gandhi has said on art, “Truth is the first thing to be sought for, and Beauty and Goodness will then be added unto you. Jesus was, to my mind, a supreme artist, because he saw and expressed Truth; and so was Mohammed, the Quran being the most perfect composition in all Arabic literature, at any rate, that is what scholars say. It is because both of them strove first for Truth, that the grace of expression naturally came in; and yet neither Jesus nor Mohammed wrote on Art. That is the Truth and beauty I crave for, live for, and would die for.”
The most beautiful art is that which depicts the truth, could there be a richer subject than the stuff of life of ordinary men? Is there a richer romance?
Minning Town is a show that deserves a wide audience among the Indian people. The ongoing experiment in China should be a subject of study for us, as we attempt to look for a way out of our present crisis. With the West is once again drumming up cold war rhetoric and propaganda, we must seek to understand and build friendly relations with our age-old neighbor.
We have had cultural and economic ties with the Chinese people for thousands of years, and shared a relationship that was largely positive till it began to be mediated by a colonial world order. Culturally, there is much that is similar between us. Buddhism ties us together in a unique and profound way, and there are many shared practices of an Afro-Asian civilizational belt from Egypt to China.
Those who paint China as an enemy of the Indian people would do well to remember the 200 years of humiliation that India faced at the hands of the West, and the economic and cultural neo-colonialism that we are still subject to. Our intellectual class is still to recover from the colonial training we have received since the glory days of Oxford and Cambridge.
For the first time since the era of the anti-colonial struggles in Africa and Asia, Western nations are seeing a period of internal strife and decline. Further, a new economic and ideological challenge to the Western dominated world order has emerged in China, for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. This is a singular moment in history, one ripe with possibilities for change toward a more just world order, and we must decide what side we stand on.
We must look back to the period when the Indian people were united around the universal principles of truth, sacrifice and love: the period of the Indian freedom struggle. Cultural production like Minning Town should inspire us to go back to our own freedom artists who sought to articulate the aspirations of the masses.