Monday, February 23, 2009

The trouble with Slumdog Millionnaire: The wank and some explanations

If one considers the wank generated by the multi-award-winning film Slumdog Millionnaire, most Indians are upset at some of the portrayals of India.

- I personally find it strange because, well, whatever the film showed of the seedy, horrendous, filthy underside of India - the religious riots, kids being maimed and forced to become beggars, kids fending for themselves (Children do live this way in India, whether they are born to it, or whether they are made to live thusly. It's how life is here **), Indians conning (white) tourists everywhere possible, kids taking to a life of crime, teenagers being sold into sexual slavery, a thriving underworld where might is right, the fact that no one cares that a girl is obviously being abducted in broad daylight at a busy train-station - all that is quite true.

- It was gross that ickle Jamal leapt into the cesspool? But you know, I can totally believe that can happen. You see, the kind of hysteria Amitabh Bachchan has created in my country is legend. Till date one hears of true incidents that happened when Bachchan had nearly died of a stomach injury - the kind of things people did to pray for his alive - rigorous penances, arduous pilgrimmages, fasts, and so on! So for a VERY impressionable kid to leap into a cesspool to get out of the outhouse and meet OMFGAmitabh BachchanOMFGOMFG? I can see that happening. Queerer things have been attempted by Amitabh Bachchan's fans.

What I cannot see is Amitabh Bachchan (or, for that matter, anyone at all!) being able to stand next to the crap-covered kid and give him an autograph. Just. No. And where was Amitabh Bachchan's security service, eh? Right.

- I don't understand the use of the word "Slumdog" - I believe it was a term coined by one of the crew - but I guess "slum-dweller" (or slumbucket, slumpig, slummongrel) just does not sound as catchy. I don't find it offensive, personally, that the film was called Slumdog Millionnaire.

What I did find offensive was how the show host used that word, so easily and casually on a national channel. It's a word with definite discriminatory connotations, and if the film-makers had done their work and studied Indian laws as much as they clearly studied India's seamy underbelly, they would have known that a remark like that would have the host instantly arrested. Or, at least, denounced loudly and roundly by the talking heads on all the TV channels that the film took such great care to show.

- I also don't think that the religious riots shown were simplistic or biased, or that the Hindus were portrayed in a bad light. True, there was tunnel-vision at work, but the director made sure that the vision was that of the children - the children who saw their mother become a casualty of religious rioting. I think the world is pretty much aware of what happened in Bombay in 1993, so I don't think there is a need to be angry over the portrayal of Hindus. If it makes angry Hindus feel better, the Muslims were just as bad. Many are the scenes my family in Bombay witness of Muslims running with swords after Hindus and of Hindus running with swords after Muslims. So.. yeah. Hardly a thing to whine about. I think greater damage was done to Hindus after the coverage of the Godhra riots and the Sabarmati Train burning of 2002.

- I find it disturbing that the director's vision of India is confined to my country's seamy underbelly. While I understand that it is, of course, unavoidable given the nature of the story, that does not make me like it. It is terribly reductive.

You see, we Indians have been trying very hard to shine and make our mark as a force to be reckoned with in the global scene, in geo-politics (how many times have we have bid for a place on the UN Security Council!) and among the players of the world's leading economies. In every way possible, it has been the constant endeavour of my country to be outstanding, leaving behind its imperial-dominated past and trying to emerge as strong and blazing as Germany did after both the world wars, or like America - the biggest example of a nation throwing off its imperial shackles and becoming a global superpower.

Films like Slumdog are, then, naturally viewed as regressive to we Indians, who have been trying to carve a name for our country for so long. We find it upsetting when anyone, in particular, a FOREIGNER, reduces us - AS USUAL - to a land of poverty, cows, snake-charmers, yoga and now, Bollywood. We are so much more than this. But the thing is, when a film is made, it has a great impact because is presented to not one but several audiences. And in the case of Slumdog, it has been presented to the audiences of the entire world. For Indians, it's upsetting that the entire world is seeing Just One Facet of the country and a very bad one at that, a facet, which - to be fair - every country in the world possesses, whether it is First World or Third World, or anything in between. But no one remembers their own backyards when they are seeing India's shame.

And the movie had its impact. I found it annoying when well-meaning but credulous people asked - Is this REALLY true that such things happen in India? Because I am truthful, I say, yes, these things do happen in India. But then again, they happen in any other country of the world, too - yes, yes, but is the hysteria over an actor that great? Yes, it is, and Amitabh Bachchan is actually an icon and has been called a living legend... and you know, there was as much hysteria generated by Beatlemania and - Oh, so people are STILL that poor in India? Oh my God! Yes, they are as poor here as they are anywhere else. The thing is that we have such a large population that we do not have social security - That's so sad! I feel so sorry for India. I... never mind.

THIS is what we Indians come up against. Not the stupid questions, heck, I have stupid questions about every country not my own (my wonderful friends have suffered mine about America and Ireland). No, it's not the questions but the attitude.. the reductive attitude that sees India in only those terms that people from the West want to see it in.

I do understand that had Dinesh Bhalla Danny Boyle made a film about India's economic prosperity and growing global clout, it would have been a disaster (with Rahman's rubbishy score as its only saving grace, perhaps). I acknowledge and accept the director's vision. However, that vision has tainted many people's attitudes towards my country, and THAT is what I don't like and what we Indians are upset about. That a firang showed off our shame to the world and won acclaim and accolades for it.

** I am remembering a discussion I once had with on children. This is where my thoughts come from - this India, where I was born and nurtured and where I live, where children less fortunate than I get as rough a deal as most adults do in this country. Where no concessions or protection are given to children on account of their age, because it's a dog-eat-dog world out there on the streets. (There are laws to protect everyone but as is obvious, they are not adhered to.)

ETA: I found that the Wikipedia entry has a good account of all the reactions to the film.

Cross-posted from my original blog on February 24, 2009