Why do we love the Slumdog?

As the stock market plummets, the stimulus package remains under scrutiny and more jobs disappear, what is it about Slumdog Millionaire’s rag-to-riches story that has overwhelmingly caught the Western world’s rapt attention? With the Academy Awards in which the film has garnered 10 nominations including Best Picture and Best Director being only a few days away, it is interesting to dwell on the question: why has this Dickensonian tale won so many hearts?

I can certainly tell you why it won my heart – and big time. For one, I am one of those rarer specimens who enjoy mainstream Bollywood and independent cinema with equal passion and fervor, as if two schizophrenic halves of me occupy completely different film worlds, and have never felt a compulsion to reconcile with each other. But in my parallel journeys, rarely have I come across a film that makes these two tracks meld, not as an awkward merger but as a way of seeing that does not require a big, unbridgeable chasm between the fantastical and the real. In fact, the tension and affinities between harsh realism and dreamy fantasy become the very devices by which the story of Slumdog Millionaire is unfurled. What else but a stubborn strain of fantastic hope keeps two little boys alive after they see their mother stabbed and burned in religious riots and one of their lot of orphans blinded by acid? What else but the brutal realism of survival inspires the many hopefuls who flock to Mumbai from all over India dreaming of making it big, just like Jamal’s bid to win a million on the Crorepati TV show? What I loved most about the movie was that it uses the fantastical to tell a very real, a very poignant, simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming story. It pits the world of “Reality TV,” which is essentially what shows such as Who wants to be a Millionaire fall under, against the brutal reality on the streets. In doing so it exposes the hypocrisy inherent in a society’s bid to make heroes of those making millions overnight in a blind following of the so-called American Dream, while showing the possibilities this might unexpectedly have for the reality-strapped orphan on the street. By using the irony of an unschooled “Slumdog’s” unexpected knowledge of random upper-class facts through harrowing life-events, it reveals the complexity of Indian society’s seams and the unpredictable ways in which they meet, morph and part ways like the never-ending railway tracks in India’s landscape. 

In some pundit circles, criticism is rife of the stark gap between the miserable conditions of the larger segment of the Indian population and the feel-good cinema of Bollywood pandering to middle-class tastes. On February 10 Times of India’s Avijit Ghosh slammed Slumdog Millionaire by putting it in the same category, accusing unequivocally, “But in its barebones, Slumdog Millionaire is insincere. It pretends to be reality while selling fantasy. In a style that suits the cinematic sensibilities of India’s social elite, it peddles what Bollywood has been doing for the past century – that there’s a great girl and a pot of gold beyond every pile of shit, literally in this case.” OK. So this sounds like the right thing to say, especially in the footsteps of 2008 Booker Prize winning novel White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, that masterfully unveils the existence of two disparate Indias that are progressively growing apart – one an upward moving, tech-savvy, politically minded and largely corrupt middle and upper class, and another a nameless, faceless amorphous mass of caste- and poverty-ridden cripples who have no hope and no future. I think that Adiga’s maiden endeavor is indeed a masterpiece. With due respect to Ghosh and Adiga and perhaps many other erudite Indians, I maintain however, that the real India is inherently just as unabashedly fantastical as she is harshly and unapologetically real. She is far too complex to be one or the other … ask Rafiq Dossani, author of India Arriving, also a 2008 publication. Consider for a moment, that her freedom struggle was fought and won, just over 60 years ago, yes, in the crudely realistic backdrop of bloody, murderous religious strife, but without a war. And its leader was a skinny, vegetarian man who once was tongue-tied to utter a single word in public, with no weapons and only principles. This he accomplished while pitted against the biggest colonial power in world history. When you zoom out and see it that way, does it not sound fantastical to you? Like an ancient fairy tale in the last decade’s rhetoric of war and vengeance?

The other political angle in much of the criticism lies in many Indians’ chagrin that a Western outfit, with the nationality of our colonizers, no less, had the audacity to make a film that throws the darkest face of India under global purview. The Big-B of Bollywood, Amitabh Bachchan, sparked much controversy after he wrote in his personal blog that Slumdog Millionaire portrays India as a “Third World dirty underbelly.” He contends that a “… murky underbelly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations … It’s just that the (Slumdog Millionaire) idea authored by an Indian and conceived and cinematically put together by a Westerner, gets creative (Golden) Globe recognition. The other would perhaps not.” The general feeling is, why don’t Bollywood’s own efforts like Satya, Chakra or Dharavi make waves at the Oscars? Others have insisted that Slumdog Millionaire enforces new stereotypes, simply “advancing India from a land of the gurus, snake charmers and elephants to a land of call centers, slums and beggars.” I can resonate with this sentiment. Yet, it did take Richard Attenborough to bring Gandhi to life via cinema, and reach global audiences. Sometimes it takes someone outside the system to represent it in a way that sticks. Despite an understandable hurt to our pride, being alright with allowing all faces of complex India to be seen and be shown by outsiders may be the first step in truly acknowledging what needs to be changed. Perhaps we have been too numbed out to change what we have seen from close quarters in our daily lives, but can be woken from our stupor through an outsider’s lens?

I remember vividly the day I saw Slumdog Millionaire. It was before its mainstream release, and it was playing at The Egyptian during those days in mid-December that Seattle was uncharacteristically snowed in and paralyzed. When my boyfriend and I stepped out of the theater, I stumbled and skid on the frozen, icy sidewalk, and while trying to regain my balance, a big lump of tears I had been valiantly holding back throughout the movie exploded in a deluge in the street crossing. I couldn’t explain it – it was beyond a sadness – a deep, crippling frustration with not knowing where to begin to even scratch the surface in making a difference in the lives of the less fortunate, especially children. The faces of the little slum kids from the earlier scenes of the movie were flashing in front of my fogged up eyes, and I know that the images of Jamal being tortured in the police station and the little blinded boy begging in the subway station haunted me for days on end. At the same time, that schizophrenic back channel in my head was still playing the cheerful Bollywoodesque dance number to which Jamal and Latika swayed their hips during the closing credits. I am reminded of the message behind this seemingly flippant close – yes, we’re a poor India, we’re a downtrodden India, we’re a sick India, we’re an uneducated India, we’re a corrupt India … but we’re also an India that’s always ready to break into a dance. Have a laugh, dude, break a leg and don’t take yourself so seriously!

 

*** This article was written for Tasveer, a Seattle-based Independent Film Organization, to include in their newsletter in anticipation of the Oscars.

Last 5 posts by Shahana Dattagupta



5 Comments

  1. Khushi

    Good post! I watched slum dog this weekend – our first date after a long time and pretty much went through similar emotions.

  2. Tana

    Thanks Khushi, I’m glad this resonated with you. A lot has been written about the film, and I was hoping to provide a personalized perspective, which has had a pretty positive response in Seattle.

  3. Yasmin

    I enjoyed reading this post. The movie won my heart too… I think it lived up to all the hype, and hope it bags a few Oscars.

  4. indrani

    Hi Tana. I loved the movie too. I could’nt agree with you more. Movies like Mira Nair’s Salam Bombay somehow just couldn’t evoke the emotions and touch you deep inside. Slumdog remain with you for days after you have seen the movie.

  5. Tana

    Thanks, Yasmin and Indrani! I’m delighted that SM won 8 Oscars – and AR Rahman’s very first!

Leave a Reply