After the Brouhaha
Posted on 1-March-2009
For more than three months Indian newspapers and television channels have taken their readers and viewers along on the award winning tracks of the British film Slumdog Millionaire through the Golden Globe, BAFTA and finally to the summit of the Motion Pictures Academy Award of the USA, where it won eight Oscars. Progressing on its path of glory it sent those people in India who have an unquenchable thirst for the recognition by the West of any achievement by any Indian into a rising crescendo of ecstasy. The most Indian thing about the film is that the story is set in India. The second most Indian thing about it is that all the actors as well the composer of the award winning musical score, the writer of the award winning lyric and many of the supporting technical personnel are Indian. Because the film was judged the best at all these events, all those, Indians and others, who had a share in the making of it, must have their share of honour and pride and they deserve to be congratulated. Yet the film is British just as another film of another age, Richard Attenborough's Gandhi was, even though its protagonist, many members of its cast, and much of its locale were Indian. Yet the fact of Slumdog being British has not stopped many Indian chests being swollen with patriotic pride at its success. There have been non-stop discussions of its merits. This one says Indian cinema has finally arrived. That other one forecasts fruitful synergies between Hollywood and Bollywood.
Ever since the film started gaining recognition, there have been in India discussions of a different kind too. There is the obvious "patriotic" reaction that the film by depicting the squalor of a Mumbai slum seeks to "show India in a bad light", to use a familiar Indian cliché. Some people protested that by using the expression "slumdog" the film makers were showing unacceptable contempt for slum dwellers. Others discussed the miserable lives of those living in slums. Then there are those for whom the existence of these slums in the midst of so much wealth is a national disgrace. For another, slums are not specifically Indian urban phenomena; they are omnipresent in the developing world and even the cities of the affluent West have their dirty, squalid, crumbling back alleys and inner cities. Another wrote that a place like Mumbai's infamous Dharavi--reputed to be the largest slum in Asia--is more than mere dirt and poverty; it hums with myriad economic activities including making goods for India's export market. If all the discussion of life in India's shantytowns that has been provoked by this film led to sensible long term policies about urban planning--there are no short cuts--it would have made a lasting contribution to India. The likelihood is that life will resume its normal rhythm once, in about a fortnight, the encomiums, the criticisms and the controversies cease. Dharavi and its cousins in other Indian cities will continue their existence; an occasional documentary will be made about them and even, once in a while, a full length feature film will be set in one or the other of them--in that sense Slumdog is neither the first of its kind, nor unique.
So much of critical acclaim won by an artistic creation like Slumdog has the tendency to silence all or any dissenting voice. Yet there must be some. The film's technical merits stand out. The story races along holding the attention of the audience firmly in its grip, while the film maker juggles deftly between its four or five sub themes. Its defenders probably rightly say in response to those who are offended by its depiction of life in a slum that it is a story about how one man manages to escape that life, how he never flinches in his love for his girl, that it is a fairy tale and that it is not a documentary but simple entertainment. From another point of view--probably negative--the film is fluffy and maybe that is its merit. It does not seriously explore any of the sub themes in the plot: police torture; disablement and exploitation of children; communal riots or the value of personal human relations in the midst of all the misery. Yet in spite of all the cinematographic virtuosity and in spite of the happy ending, vast numbers of those who see the film will go away with strong impressions of the misery and the squalor and of police brutality, for as the viewer follows the protagonist's success in the quiz show, the camera keeps returning to torture scenes in the police station and to poverty, filth and crimes in the slum. Viewed thus, and after everything has been said in its favour, the film in its totality is about life in an Indian slum and about the way the rest of society treats those who live there.
When all the noise created by the success of Slumdog Millionaire has died down, one question will remain. A few months before this film shot into fame, an Indian, Aravind Adiga's book, The White Tiger was awarded the man Booker Prize. That is a book about the seamy side of life in both rural and urban India. As in the case of a great deal of English language fiction written by Indians, in this case too it is difficult to escape the impression that the author is showcasing a slice of Indian life for a Western, English speaking audience or for the microscopic section of urban Indians who read literary works in the English language. It is not that in the depictions in the book or in the film there are any gross distortions beyond legitimate limits of artistic licence. The question really is why within a few months of each other, an important British institution, creator and upholder of canons of taste in English language fiction and three other Western institutions, creators and upholders of canons of taste in the cinematographic art, should choose a book and a film which showcase a certain, unpleasant aspect of life in India for the award of distinctions. The question is serious and not a mere reflection of a jingoistic sentiment especially if we remember two points. There are periodical trends in the way the West views the non-Western world; for example there was a time in the 1980's when films and novels about the British Raj--laced with heavy doses of nostalgia and sentiments about the white man's burden--became quite popular in the United Kingdom. We may at the present moment be at the beginning of another trend. Secondly awards of this kind inevitably promote a certain kind of picture to the exclusion of alternative and additional slices of reality. Or to put it slightly differently, we may be witnessing in the way the film and the book have been promoted the operation of a process Edward Said called orientalism a long time ago.