Here in the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, the doyen of this city's hotels, what you think of the new India may depend on whether you are the person having soap squeezed onto your hands or the person squeezing the soap.
In every men's washroom at the Taj is a helper. As you approach the sink, he salutes you. Before you can turn on the tap, he does it for you. Before you can apply soap, he presses the dispenser. Before you can get a towel, he dangles one. As you leave, he salutes you again and mutters: "Right, sir. O.K., sir. Thank you, sir."
Step outside, and you see sedans reeking of new affluence. Sleeping inside are drivers, many of them asleep because they work 20-hour shifts, waking up at 6 a.m. to catch a train, taking the boss to and from work, then to his dinner, then to drinks, then dropping him home at 1 a.m. and taking a taxi back to the tenements.
At 1 a.m. back in the boss's apartment building, the hallways are often covered with bodies. They belong to servants and sweepers who work inside by day but sleep outside by night, who clean the toilets but would not dare use them. They learn to sleep on cold tile, with tenants stepping over them when returning from Champagne-soaked evenings out.
India is changing so fast that it is starting to look like someplace else. Skyscrapers are sprouting. Towns are ballooning. The young date, drink, smoke freely. But many of the people who are making the new India new - from the stockbrokers to the bedecked socialites - are responsible for preserving a certain gloomy element of the Indian past: a tendency to treat the hired help like chattel, to taunt and humiliate and condescend to them, to behave as though some humans were born to serve and others to be served.
"Indians are perhaps the world's most undemocratic people, living in the world's largest and most plural democracy," as Sudhir Kakar and Katharina Kakar, two well-known scholars of Indian culture, put it in a recent book, "The Indians: Portrait of a People."
It is understandable that, in flush times, Indians would rather talk about something else.
But if a movie director in Mumbai has his way, before long they will be talking about servants. In an attempt to expose India's employer-servant relations in the way "Uncle Tom's Cabin" exposed American slavery, Raja Menon has made a provocative new film depicting India from a servant's-eye view.
The movie, "Barah Aana," which translates roughly as "shortchanged," is currently being judged by festival juries in Toronto and Venice.
It tells the story of three migrants to Mumbai from the ailing villages of northern India. They work as a chauffeur, a waiter and a security guard, sending most of their earnings home.
They are heroes to their villages; but in Mumbai, they are invisible men, enduring the callousness that comes with being an accessory to other people's boom times.
In one scene, a wealthy homemaker, plump and accessorized by Louis Vuitton, zips through the city in the back of her black SUV, pattering on her phone. Suddenly, her chauffeur slams on the brakes, jostling the woman and interrupting her conversation.
"That beggar child came in front of my car," she explains indignantly to her friend in English after resuming her call. "That idiotic driver just put the brake."
In another scene, a security guard discovers that his son is ill and, without a $150 treatment, will die. Yadav goes around in his building asking for loans from tenants who often drop $40 on pizza.
The tenants, glued to televisions, treat him like a puppy to be shooed away.
That night, as he sits with friends filling himself with drink, he contemplates what it would mean to bury a son. "Why is it," he wails, "that people can only feel their own pain, not others'?"
The director's answer is that India has something deeper than a poverty problem.
It has, in his view, a "dehumanization" problem. In an interview, he described India's employers and servants as living as "two different species."
The movie's first half chronicles India's small humiliations with a chilling realism. The second half prophesies an outbreak of violent revolts in a country whose elite has long comforted itself with the thought that the poor will stoically accept their lots.
Menon's belief is that such stoicism is drying up in an age when the rich are more visibly rich and the left-behind are ever more aware of their deprivation.
The poor were long told that their poverty was deserved, he said. But now they see wealth everywhere, and they are starting to believe that poverty is circumstantial and can be reversed
"That's when the dam bursts," he said, "the moment the person feels, 'It's not true that this is my place."'
Such a moment seemed to occur one recent evening. The movie was screened before an audience of young, middle-class Indians, representatives of the country's new prosperity.
But one of them, Mitesh Thakkar, a 30-year-old marketing manager, arrived with a taxi driver he often employs, and he injected diversity into the screening by inviting the driver in to watch the film.
Thakkar reacted as one might when one's social class has been indicted. The film was good but "one-sided," he said: "Maybe there are 70 percent of the people who treat them bad, but there are 30 percent who treat them good."
But for the taxi driver, Javed Ali, the movie was an instant classic.
"This story is the truth," he said. "Whatever was in my mind, the movie showed."
Ali is a 20-year-old migrant worker, and he knew the film's humiliations up close. Sometimes people take his taxi and refuse to pay; sometimes they are drunk and mistreat him; sometimes they scream at him and say, "You're no good."
After the screening, some audience members, including Thakkar and Ali, went out for dinner. (Perhaps it was the film's influence: To dine with a taxi driver in India is to cross a rarely traversed line.)
The other diners wanted to know what Ali, the only working-class man at the table, thought of the film. Ali answered, rather casually, that he saw where the characters were coming from, that he understood their hunger, after so many years of humiliation, for revenge.
"He said the part where the driver kidnaps his female boss - that he did the right thing," Thakkar said later, recalling Ali's comments. "Even though he got caught, she needed that kidnapping."
On that evening, at that unusually populated table, with prosperous and poor side by side, India's parallel realities fleetingly, ominously collided