The dumbing down of WikiLeaks

DID ANYONE else get the feeling that the Mayawati- Julian Assange exchange this fortnight sounded like the trailer of a romantic comedy? A trailer for the kind of film that has a raging, warring couple whose defences break down only in the last 20 minutes. The kind with a fiery Beatrice-like heroine who, when asked if Benedick was not in her good books, replies: No; and if he were, I would burn my study.

Listen to the rhythm of it. Julian Assange: She has a big ego and she likes her shoes too much. Mayawati: You, anti-Dalit, I will put you in a mental asylum. And I will give more power to my pals Shashank and Satish, what you going to do about it? Julian Assange: Go fight with Hillary, you betrayer of Dalits. And if you wanna fight more, pick me up from my house arrest, I will bring you British shoes. Is this a lovefest or this a lovefest?

Perhaps this cinematic encounter between Mayawati and Assange was inevitable. Perhaps all WikiLeaks is waiting for is a Nora Ephron screenplay. Certainly an encounter between WikiLeaks and Bollywood should not have surprised us. This week’s revelation was that Siddharth Roy Kapur and Akshaye Wadhwani, heads of huge Bollywood production houses, said to someone, “Following the Hollywood model, many film and entertainment companies are moving away from an actor or star-based system to a system more reliant on the production company’s brand, and its stable of producers and directors.” (Bollywood stars are overpaid. Surprise!)

Imagine this. Someone heard this tidbit somewhere and then someone sent this information via diplomatic cable to the US State Department, which then placed this information in the default setting of classified. As classified as the information that has emerged from other cables such as the Sultan of Oman being too busy these days to read, or that a diplomat ate sheep innards at a picnic in Eritrea. The security classification system that protects this information is said to have cost over $8.8 billion in 2009 alone but let’s not worry about how much money the US is spending. What is more relevant is why are the dregs of the leaked cables being given the gravitas of national security? And have we forgotten that the cables are less holy writ and more Chinese whispers?

If we stop being distracted by the gossip, we may notice the shallow analysis being unearthed by WikiLeaks. How disorienting to find diplomatic cables filled with sociological rubies such as “iconic celebrities such as Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan attract legions of fans, while millions of Muslims languish in poverty. Since Independence, three Muslims have been appointed as President of India, but Muslims are grossly under-represented in Parliament and other elected bodies”. That the West thinks it can understand non-western cultures with such clumsy juxtapositions is troubling.

Often diplomatic cables such as the one above bring on a vague sense of déjà vu. Where else have we seen such evidence of cognitive dissonance in the western cerebellum? Could it be something you read in the first few pages of Lonely Planet India? No, perhaps it is more like the writings of poor hard-worked Abbe Dubois, the 18th century French missionary writing of south India and troubled by ‘paradoxes’ such as Brahmins refusing contact with Dalits unless it is the height of summer in which case they do not mind accepting buttermilk from the hands of the same Dalits. A couple of hundred years later, here we are still reading the unfiltered marginalia of compulsive Caucasian note-takers to find ourselves.

Having made all these grim pronouncements of Orientalism, let us celebrate. WikiLeaks seems to have found its ultimate destiny — recycling celebrity gossip. We look forward to the WikiLeaks that ‘reveal’ the evergreen Dev Anand’s youthful appearance, the cable on Sonam Kapoor’s fashion sense and Ranbir Kapoor’s family connections.


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