The other night I watched the first episode of Sanjeev Bhaskar’s series on India, part of the BBC’s big sprawling strand to mark the sixtieth anniversary of Indian and Pakistani independence. It wasn’t bad, either, although I could have done with a bit less on the entrepreneurs and a bit more on street-level India. That’s just my taste, though, and given Sanjeev’s self-imposed brief to look at what’s changing in today’s India, his biases were understandable. Judged on its own terms, this was quite an enjoyable programme.
It wasn’t until after I’d seen the programme that I came across this splenetic preview from Yuri Prasad in Socialist Worker. Let me say, first, that my disagreement with Yuri is not ideological. What I want to take issue with is the underlying assumption of what a review should do. The SWP, and they aren’t alone on the left in doing this, have a deeply annoying tendency to review TV shows, films, novels, you name it, according to how far they approach or depart from SWP politics. This is what you might term the “here’s what Sanjeev should have said” approach.
Now as far as I know Sanjeev Bhaskar is one of the few comedians in Britain who isn’t in the SWP, so I fail to see the point of berating him for not making the documentary Yuri seems to have wanted to see. If I understand Yuri correctly, a documentary on India should in all circumstances be an earnest affair addressing poverty in the slums, the status of women, maybe the rise of political Hindutva, and inspiring stories of how peasants are resisting multinationals. But what we have here is not a John Pilger documentary, but a Sanjeev Bhaskar documentary. It’s a bit like attacking Mean Girls for not being The Seventh Seal. Apart from giving the unfortunate impression that Yuri is chronically lacking in a sense of humour, it all seems rather beside the point.
There is also an opaque reference to “Sanjeev judging a beauty contest for wealthy housewives”, which I suppose falls foul of the SWP’s adoption of MacKinnonite puritanism as its cultural politic.
Repeat after me, Yuri. If you’re reviewing something, particularly something that isn’t an earnest political polemic, you first look at the object and see if it succeeds or fails in its own terms, then if you like you can add some points that you think should have been addressed. You do not set up an ideal of “what this programme/film/book should have been like” (with an unstated subtext of “if the artist was in the SWP”) and then attack the object for not living up to your ideal. That just leads to Yuri Prasad, or whoever the reviewer might be, sounding like Karl Radek at the 1935 Congress of Soviet Writers. And it makes the left look like a bunch of doctrinaire dullards.