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The Village, By Nikita Lalwani
An engaging morality tale about a TV crew's manipulation of life in an open prison in India.
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014.
Saturday 23 June 2012
There is a defining moment in Nikita Lalwani's second novel, when Ray Bhullar, a fresh-faced TV director commissioned to make a documentary about an open-prison in India, gives us a glimpse of the heroic – and naïve – idealism that will lead both to her undoing, and her salvation.
Ray is sitting in a rickshaw with Nathan, a worldly ex-con and TV presenter, describing the film she hopes to make. She tells him how important it is to represent "these people as human beings rather than as ciphers or ideas. That she was Indian and that the British audience would see this film and understand what being Indian really means. How much beauty, honesty, trust, dignity and inspiration there was in the country".
As Ray talks, the reader can almost hear Nathan scoffing silently at her. Sure enough, her endeavour to make a high-minded film about the progressive model prison in Ashwer is stymied by her colleagues' agenda to make television that is confessional, emotive and ultimately, exploitative of the inmates that Ray intended to hold up as shining examples of rehabilitation.
The subject of media manipulation is a topical one, given the intrusions highlighted in the Levenson inquiry and the growth of "real life" stories on TV. "Television... was the least elitist tool, the most egalitarian," says Ray in her earnest monologue, but it turns out to be a highly manipulative tool in the hands of her BBC crew. Gradually, Ray slips into complicity with her colleagues, even as she inwardly protests against it.
Lalwani previously worked as a documentary maker, and there is a great deal of authenticity in the television-making processes described in The Village, particularly its claustrophobic voyeurism. If the three-strong BBC team have come to study the inmates and edit their stories, the inmates are watching their Western visitors, weaving narratives to their lives too. Despite her ideals and camaraderie with the Indian families, Ray looks at them as subjects, framing them in her mind's eye as if wielding an invisible camera. Her older, more hardened colleague, Serena, has ceased to think of the ethics behind their "storylines".
Though Serena is an under-developed character whose cynicism seems one-dimensional, the competitive relationship between her and Ray gives the book its greatest dramatic tension. The moral battle about how best to make the documentary is played out as a personal battle between them. Their later contest to win Nathan's affection might have been unconvincing, given how unimpressive a man he is, had it not been for this psychological showdown between them.
This is a coming-of-age story, not unlike Lalwani's feted debut, Gifted, about a precocious teenager's struggle to free herself from overbearing parents. Ray's struggle is against the corrupting media machine, and she too manages emancipation.
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