Satirising the brutal treatment of domestic staff in India

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 August, 2012, 3:15pm

As a young boy who travelled the world with his diplomat parents, Prashant Nair remembers that every summer they would return to Delhi for a long break.

During those holidays, he would witness a far greater contempt for poor Indians than any shown by the rich white Mississippi women towards their black maids in the Hollywood film, The Help.

"I used to see children kicking elderly staff. Once I saw a servant being slapped in front of 80 to 90 people for forgetting something. There was no respect or dignity for domestic help," he says.

Now, many years later, Nair, an engineering graduate and entrepreneur turned filmmaker, has just released his first feature film, Delhi in a Day, which portrays the routine mistreatment of maids, cooks and drivers by the city's nouveau riche.

This is an issue that, once in a while, features in the Indian media: a teenage girl bludgeoned to death for trying on her employer's lipstick; a maid left for a week locked in the flat with no food by a doctor couple who went off to Bangkok; a boy servant punished for over-salting his employer's food by having a hot spatula pressed against his face. But then the stories would disappear.

The daily indignities inflicted on domestic staff are known only to the victims and it is these experiences Nair has chosen for his satire, along with the conspicuous consumption, endless socialising, materialism, over-the-top excesses, narcissism, and social oneupmanship of the wealthy.

"My characters do charity work and engage in philanthropic activities but the moment they get home, they can't treat the staff with civility or dignity," he says.

Nair, 35, has deliberately chosen not to portray the worst crimes committed against domestic help. Too "dark" a film could run the risk of being rejected outright by Indian audiences and that would have negated his hope that the film would provoke a debate in India.

Delhi in a Day shows a rich, loudmouth socialite who leads a frou-frou lifestyle with her wealthy businessman husband in a palatial mansion in south Delhi.

A semi-alcoholic cook, a butler, two drivers, and a maid minister to their needs. The socialite routinely calls them "idiots" or waves them away dismissively in front of guests.

The Paris-based Nair says he is not sure why some Indians are so callous towards their staff. Nor does he see their behaviour improving. "If anything, the younger generation is more selfish and materialistic."