Indiaspotting … Jai ho Slumdog!

I first heard about Slumdog from the Afllicted One who had been telling me about it forever it seemed. It’s India’s City of God! he would exclaim in the face of my apathy, giving me a dvd of the movie which I watched sometime in January. By then it was the subject of much discussion having already bowled over audiences at film festivals such as Telluride, Toronto and Sundance, not to mention sweeping the Golden Globes. All my friends who had seen it here loved it as well.

Despite all this my first viewing of Slumdog left me with numerous misgivings that I couldn’t readily articulate. I was reacting to something about it that struck me as a bit formulaic, even slick. It lacked the raw edge of Cidade de Deus which I think is one of the five best films I’ve ever seen. By the way, The Harder They Come also ranks in my top five. But then again I’m not a real film buff so my taste in movies is not as highly developed as my taste in art or literature or music. I now find myself wondering whether Perry Henzell’s film, despite the universal approbation it earned, might also have left some Jamaicans less than satisfied with its depiction of life here.

Still I feel altogether more kindly towards Slumdog in the wake of the Oscar ceremonies which I thoroughly enjoyed watching while live blogging with Anna John and her friends. Anna (Twitter name Suitable Girl), whom I knew from her posts on Sepia Mutiny (‘the brownest blog ever’) had tweeted an invitation to all and sundry to join her in testing the new live blogging software, Cover it Live, during the Oscars. I’m still congratulating myself for deciding to join in because the live blogging turned into a “raucous party” that lasted a good four hours or so. You have to understand that normally the Oscars pass me by almost completely. But to be part of a group of voluble Indians in the diaspora watching the Oscars while contributing to a live, running commentary the year Slumdog Millionaire won 8 Oscars was quite an experience. Here’s a small selection of the comments to give you an idea…

9:38 [Comment From Abhi]
That dress is fugly

9:39 [Comment From cheesefries]
Don’t. understand. the. dress.

9:39 [Comment From sfgirl]
Jessica Beil.. ugLy hair and dresss

9:39 [Comment From annie paul]
it looks like a mundu and chatta

9:39 [Comment From host Anna John]

9:39 [Comment From kal]
Anil Kapoooor is Mr. India, do not insult him..or else your effigies will be burnt

9:39 {comment From brimful]
And the Charlize Theron memorial Gift Wrap dress award goes to Biel.

9:39 [Comment From marina]
Is Jessica Biel wearing a silk diaper?

9:39 [Comment From Babu]
I want to see those kids do a bhangra on stage…their red carpet talk was great..

9:40 [comment From Margin Fades]
The earrings are awesome…I’m not so sure about the dress.

9:40 [Comment From Pooja]
Why is Jessica Biel wearing a sheet?

To add some masala to the whole thing Anil Kapoor, the actor who played the tv show host in Slumdog, was in situ at the Oscars and taking part in the live blogging by texting comments from backstage. I even had a live and direct exchange with him when he responded to a comment I made about ‘doubles’–the Trini Indian street delicacy. Here’s an edited version of the conversation:

Trini doubles, a droolworthy version of Indian cholay bhaturay

9:50 [Comment From host Anna John]
Why aren’t there brown hot pockets? With chole [channa] within? Sigh.

9:50 [Comment From annie paul]
Oh you must be talking of doubles…the trini version of chole bhaturay

9:51 [Comment From host Anna John]
No, never heard of either doubles or what FD mentioned 🙂 This is highly useful information!

9:51 [Comment From GurMando]
you can buy every indian dish in micro-wave ready packets now

9:51 [Comment From Fuerza Dulce]
No – it’s not doubles, Annie. It’s desi food in a pocket.

9:52 [Comment From Anil Kapoor]
doubles are good and so is soca and chutney

9:53 [Comment From annie paul]
Anil, you’ve been to TnT!

9:53 [Comment From host Anna John]
Tanqueray and Tonic?

9:53 [Comment From Anil Kapoor]
yes annie

Doubles…drool…daily i rue the fact that they can’t be obtained here . For those who don’t know what it is, doubles are the Trini version of something called Chole Kulchay in India, an absolutely delish combination of a soft, spongy bread eaten with spicy chickpeas or Chole. In Trinidad they put the channa between two ‘baras’ or kulchas which is why it’s called ‘doubles’–a sort of channa sandwich.

To return to Slumdog, i think the uneasy sense it gave me was the discomfort of feeling that India had been translated for a global audience, a little too glibly and somewhat inaccurately, but really what the hell, ultimately it’s someone else’s version of an Indian story and it’s all good as they say here…although Salman Rushdie has come out swinging against it by saying the plot of Slumdog ‘beggars belief’. It’s true and that’s one of the things I didn’t like about the film, the number of sheer coincidences the plot depended on. Slumdog Millionaire is a latter-day Beggar’s Opera, a contemporary Brechtian Threepenny Opera set in Bombay, complete with maimed child beggars.

I tend to agree with Ashok Korwar who said:

Indians don’t connect with the movie because it is riddled with small mistakes, which make it look and feel inauthentic. It is a movie made for a British audience by a British film-maker, who doesn’t know enough about India. Which is fine. I personally have no problem with it. it is a perspective and all perspectives are valid as cinema..

I also agree with Raj from NY who said in a forum called The Real Roots of the ‘Slumdog’ Protests:

The exploitation of these slum dwellers is well documented. It is not fantasy. I have seen and heard the contempt the upper classes have for the poor and the “untouchables”. Believe me, the words used to describe them are far stronger than “slumdog”. Maybe Indians need to ask why so many of their romantic, escapist Bollywood movies are shot abroad for its scenery. Why did it take a British director to think of making a romance based in a slum?

Predictably the reaction from Indians in India was not as enthusiastic as that of Slumdog fans around the world (a “globalized masterpiece” etc.). There was also a generational dimension to the protests against the film that reminded me of the debate around Mira Nair’s 1988 film Salaam Bombay, the storyline of which covered much of the same material as Slumdog: Street kids, slums in Mumbai and brothels. My father found the film extremely distasteful whereas I thought it was a powerhouse. Now as then, the older generation (and I now have to include myself in this dismal category) are not inclined to view films like Slumdog with much enthusiasm.

At the same time my views are not as extreme as exsqueeze me who commented:

I find the movie extremely offensive and racist. It shows Indian culture as bankrupt and evil. There isn’t a single good Indian person in that movie. What are people happy about? Do you guys really believe India is such a morally bankrupt society? How come the west likes to see only movies that show abject poverty and misery? This movie is made by a westener for a western audience so that they can feel good about themselves. Pathetic! : January 14, 2009 at 05:18 PM

I thought Manohla Dargis’s description of Slumdog in The New York Times was a good one:

A gaudy, gorgeous rush of color, sound and motion, “Slumdog Millionaire,” the latest from the British shape-shifter Danny Boyle, doesn’t travel through the lower depths, it giddily bounces from one horror to the next. A modern fairy tale about a pauper angling to become a prince, this sensory blowout largely takes place amid the squalor of Mumbai, India, where lost children and dogs sift through trash so fetid you swear you can smell the discarded mango as well as its peel, or could if the film weren’t already hurtling through another picturesque gutter.

“It’s a white man’s imagined India,” said Shyamal Sengupta, a film professor at the Whistling Woods International institute in Mumbai. “It’s not quite snake charmers, but it’s close. It’s a poverty tour.”

On the other hand, “Get Real, India”, said Neelesh Mishra of The Hindustan Times (and I completely agree):

Let me get this straight: We are not agitated because slumdwellers exist, living their crushingly poor lives. We are not agitated that an Indian man, a senior diplomat, wrote their well-told tale. We are agitated because a White man put them on screen.

One of the film’s most vocal critics, TP Srinivasan, claimed that it was “As bad or worse for India than the Mumbai attacks.” In contrast his son, Sree Srinivasan of Sajaforum (South Asian Journalists Association), the Columbia journalism professor who hosted a post-Oscars conversation about Slumdog on Blogtalkradio immediately after the ceremonies ended, agreed with the many pro-Slumdog sentiments expressed by 2nd generation Indians in the diaspora. As one caller put it, Slumdog presents post-liberalization India, the attitude that we can do whatever we want to, a proactive spirit in keeping with the new India that has emerged after casting off the socialist shackles of Indira Gandhi, Nehru etc.

Magazine Cover (Mar 06, 2009)

Some people, like Sramana Mitra, thought that Slumdog might win the foreign language film category, a sentiment which seems faintly amusing now .

The film, of course, is in English, with a combination British and Indian production team and mostly unknown actors…It was hugely satisfying to see the film on many accounts for me, not the least of which is that it uses all the “business” ingredients that I have been writing about in the Vision India 2020 series: low budget, English language, Indian context, great screenplay, great editing, and Indian-international combination production teams.

Well, here we have a great product that will likely make a legitimate run for the Foreign Language Academy Award this year. !!!

The roots of the Slumdog controversy swirled around the ethics of storytelling and as one critic put it: “The process of telling someone’s story without exploiting it, with integrity and respect, particularly when you’re using subjects who don’t have a voice of their own.”

Like most controversies there is a back story to all this. The truth is that film director, Danny Boyle, of Trainspotting fame, never expected the film to become such a success. The original distributors said the movie was going nowhere, as a result of which the producers were considering going straight to dvd. Then Fox Searchlight was contracted to distribute the film, it was most enthusiastically recieved at the Toronto Film Festival and the rest is now history. Incidentally it was also thought that there would be little interest in the Oscars this year because of Slumdog’s domination of the nominations. How wrong these predictions turned out to be!

Despite the negative critiques lobbed at it Slumdog Millionaire can claim several successes. For one thing with people like MIA and British-based actor Dev Patel in it, the film harnessed the Indian diaspora while bridging Bollywood and Hollywood innovatively. As one commentator pointed out just having big Bollywood celebrities such as Anil Kapoor and AR Rahman in the film would have doubled its costs. Yet their presence in it greatly enhanced this unprecedented collaboration. For Indians the sight of the much beloved AR Rahman performing his signature song “Jai Ho” on the Oscars stage with John Legend was an incredible experience. When Rahman spoke in Tamil after accepting the Oscar it was the icing on the cake for all of us: God is great. All the glory goes to God he said in undiluted Tamil. Incidentally the politics of Tamil, a South Indian language, is highly fraught, with Tamilians being the most uncompromising chauvinists where their language is concerned. Tamil speakers will not even deign to speak Hindi so to hear it on the ‘world stage’ as it were was an extraordinary moment.

Finally one of the best outcomes of Slumdog is the attention focused on slums like Dharavi. This film, like the novels The White Tiger and A Thousand Splendid Suns spotlights the problem of poverty which is why it has been dismissed as ‘poverty porn’. Their success brings to mind the biggest ever anti-poverty movement called the “Make Poverty History campaign” which I first heard about from Kumi Naidoo. Danny Boyle can hardly be faulted considering that the film that propelled him to international attention, Trainspotting, was also a film about urban decay and squalour in the midst of wealth. What is telling is that while many middle and upper class Indians were offended by Slumdog Millionaire the Oscars were avidly watched in Dharavi and other slums where the poverty-stricken inhabitants got a chance to see themselves represented on the so-called world stage. As an anonymous commentator said:

Boyle has done a great job in telling the story about Dharavi to the other side of the world and a big favor to India cinema, music & Indian people – long after what Satyajit Ray had accomplished in the same department almost half century ago. Senior Bachchan may find it as a grumbling point, but this movie is a reminder to the likes of Amitabh Bacchan (including Khans, Kumars etc.) that they missed the boat to produce such creative work for Indian cinema/people when they all remained busy in playing Monopoly on money/power in Bollywood, just to promote their own interests for almost four decades! It should serve a wake-up call to all of them to come out of woodwork and do some thing real now.

Nuff said.

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