TV shows and movies often show the worst aspects of its culture and society, but a trip there will help you see India in a new light
India has an image problem.
When I mentioned that I was going there for a holiday, the response was often, "Really?", followed in the same breath by "Why?", as though I had just announced that I was going on a dumpster-diving tour.
Part of it has to do with how the country has been portrayed in popular culture, from reality television game show The Amazing Race (2001 to present) to the movie Slumdog Millionaire (2008).
In a reminder of how powerful such images can be, a friend could recall the culture shock the participants felt in season 4 of The Amazing Race in 2003. They landed at Mumbai airport to an overwhelming reception of aggressive touts and later had to deal with the human crush of overcrowded Indian trains. At one point, someone was crying and exclaiming that it was all just too much to handle.
While it is exciting and exuberant, Slumdog Millionaire is also about the less savoury aspects of Indian society, such as street children getting blinded to become more effective beggars, and the deplorable conditions of slum dwelling. In one indelible scene, a child jumps into the communal toilet pit and emerges covered in human excrement.
In some of these depictions of India seen through foreign eyes, there has almost been a fetishisation of the worst aspects of its culture and society. A paper (A Content Analysis Of The Portrayal Of India In Films Produced In The West) published in The Howard Journal of Communications in 2005 makes the point that this is not new.
In a sample of 24 randomly selected films about the country produced from 1930 to 2000 in the United States or Britain, it was found that "India was consistently portrayed as backward, uncivilised, savage and traditional".
It added that it was "common to find portrayals of dirty roads, dusty streets, unclean waters, overflowing sewers, marshy streets and spoilt food apart from the presence of garbage, depictions of noisy locales or overcrowded places (especially bazaars, trains and stations) in scenes depicting India".
One way of getting a more balanced view of the sub-continent is to see how it depicts itself in Indian movies, from the fantasy of Bollywood musicals to the realist works of the late feted film-maker Satyajit Ray.
A more recent example would be The Lunchbox (2013), which serves up a portrait of modern India rooted in everyday life. As a housewife's carefully prepared lunchbox makes its way to a lonely widower by mistake, via the feat of logistical wonder that is the food delivery system in Mumbai, director Ritesh Batra cooks up a moving tale about human connection and hope.
Another way is to travel to India and see the place for yourself.
There is far more to the sub-continent than can be contained in film and TV shows and even a short trip of five days proved to be eye-opening.
My itinerary packed in sprawling and beautifully decorated palace complexes in Jaipur, an impressive fortress and a massive mosque in Delhi, and that magnificent monument to love and fidelity, the Taj Mahal. Even with the guide playing up expectations, saying no one walks away disappointed, the sight of that sophisticated white-marbled feat of 17th-century architecture against the blue sky was spectacular.
Also, no small point, this - the food was delicious, with mouth-watering curries, tender tandoori meat and fish, fragrant naans and moreish snacks to devour.
Meanwhile, it is worth remembering not to gobble up everything one sees in cinemas and on TV just because it is served to us in a convenient little package.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2017, with the headline 'More than slums in India'. Print Edition | Subscribe
We have been experiencing some problems with subscriber log-ins and apologise for the inconvenience caused. Until we resolve the issues, subscribers need not log in to access ST Digital articles. But a log-in is still required for our PDFs.