I am rooting for Slumdog Millionaire to win as many awards as possible in tomorrow’s Oscars. Certainly the Oscar for “Best Picture” as well. Does that mean I think it’s an amazing picture? Do I really think it’s better than some of the good movies churned up by Indian cinema?
Not really. Off the top of my head, I can think of quite a few Hindi movies that were as good, or better – Swades, or Chak de India, or even Lagaan. Even if we were to look at movies made just about kids in Mumbai slums, I’d say Salaam Bombay was far more touching, and it never won any Oscars. Plus, these movies all competed in the “Foreign Film” category, which is obviously a big handicap. Nor did they have the marketing muscle that Slumdog has.
But even if it’s not the bet picture we’ve seen in Indian cinema, it’s still quite good. I found it quite disquieting, and yet I liked it. So why do Indians hate Slumdog Millionaire?
We went with another couple to watch the movie. We were all disposed to like the movie, even though we knew the reviews were hostile in India. But after the movie, my friend, a Mumbaikar, was upset over the depictions of Mumbai.
“Why do they only show the poverty?”, she wondered. “Why don’t they show all of Mumbai instead of focusing just on Dharavi?”
I was silent. The movie is disquieting, but I realized a large part of my disquiet stems from the fact that it’s a possible tale. I can believe most of what the movie shows. The police brutality, the wretched life in the slums, the religion-based riots, the kidnapping of kids to work as beggars, I can believe all this. There are a few twists of plot that are hard to believe, but I cannot question the essential portrayal.
It’s true the movie focuses on the slums, but that’s what its story is about. It’s also true that Danny Boyle manages to show every symbol of India that the West focuses on – the slums, the call centers and the Taj Mahal. He somehow missed out on the snake charmers and the Great Indian rope trick, but he got everything else in. But then I am not surprised – it’s easier for someone new to India to stick to clichés rather than try to comprehend all of the complexity that India is.
But is that why people dislike the movie? Because it is full of clichés ? Shouldn’t we expect that? Aren’t Bollywood movies full of stereotypes too – the chain-smoking, hard-drinking villain, the honest hero, the innocent, beautiful, heroine and so on?
I wonder if our main objection to the movie is because it depicts a part of India we’d rather not focus on. We’d like to celebrate our economic growth and our resurgent middle class. We’d like to point to our new malls and glass-fronted buildings. The movie does not show much of the prosperity of middle class India. It shows the other India that not many of us know very well, or would like to think about – the poor India that has remained poor despite all the recent economic growth.
Not many of us ever venture inside Dharavi. It’s still a symbol of what we’ve not yet accomplished, despite pious statements like “Garibi Hatao” all those years ago.
None of the things shown in the movie is news to us, but we don’t like being reminded in an in-your-face manner about them. It is much more comforting to hope that with continued economic growth, eventually, the poor will also get a better quality of life.
So is this a class issue then? Does the middle class feel ignored and sidelined in the movie’s depiction ? Or is it just that we’d like the West, and the rest of the world, to focus on the positive story about India’s economic growth? Does the movie remind us a little too harshly about the stark realities of poverty that co-exist with our own comfortable existence? Is that why so many are flinching?