The Village, By Nikita Lalwani

The panic of reporters with no story to tell
  • @kunaldutta

To make someone cry on camera, the film director in Nikita Lalwani's latest novel observes, is simple. "Just sympathise with them each time they speak. So say something like 'That must have been so difficult,' after one response. Or, 'That must have been really hard' after the next. Keep saying it and eventually they break down."

In London's media bubble, such journalistic sleight of hand would hardly have you hauled in front of Lord Leveson. But deployed on rural India's most sick and vulnerable, it takes on an altogether darker significance. And it is the dissection of this kind of attitude that elevates The Village from an ordinary travel thriller about a team of documentary film-makers abroad into Joseph Conrad territory, showing lingering post-colonial prejudices and the catastrophic effect of Westerners going East with a specific mission in mind.

In The Village, the BBC has blagged its way into Ashwer, one of the country's open prisons, where inmates roam freely. It has dispatched a film-making team comprising an introspective British Asian director, an English producer and a maverick technician. Their brief is clear. "The more conflict we see with our own eyes the better," comes the instruction from an agitated editor in London.

But Ashwer is no ordinary prison. Instead of cells, the premises promote a "Gandhian idea of a village" where each prisoner strives towards self-improvement. Nor are the prisoners the dagger-wielding serial murderers that make for good television. Instead, most are members India's rural society who have fallen on the wrong side of "crimes of passion, property and personal vengeance". The authorities believe that their prison model is a proven path to reform: Ashwer boasts zero reoffenders and just one, failed, escapee.

And as time passes, pressure piles. Suddenly it is not the prisoners that concern us but the film crew, who start to resemble well-heeled gap-year students desperate for something to write home about. They bludgeon their way through the expense account and feed a monomaniacal obsession with the "money shot". What follows is a disturbing exploration of media ethics. This is Lalwani's follow-up to the much-lauded Gifted which was published in 2007. Sharp and uncompromising, it is a ripsnorting read that leaves us wondering where the needle will be pointing at the moment the moral compass is smashed to pieces.