Some may view Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire as a judgment on Mumbai and India. It is, to a point. But there is more to the movie’s success.
Nobody can say that Slumdog Millionaire patronizes or glorifies India. The realistic depictions of grinding poverty, torture, rioting mobs, child mutilation, prostitution and a class ridden society expose the dark underbelly of Indian society for the world to see. To be sure, in his effort to portray an adversarial environment around the hero Jamal Malik, Danny Boyle sometimes goes overboard. But for the most part, as Shashi Tharoor says, Slumdog Millionaire is India.
True, but is it only about India?
Some Indians have taken offence to the none-too-flattering portrayal of India and to the use of the term "slumdog". Scenes of poverty and squalor may indeed delight some Westerners, affirming stereotypes about the third world. But the movie’s wild popularity across the globe as the world heads into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression belies such simplistic rationales.
The New York Times columnist Frank Rich recently wrote a piece titled ‘Slumdogs Unite’ in which he asks ‘Slumdogs’ who "… resent people who appear to be living high off a system dominated by insiders with the right connections" to take on the corrupt nexus of money and privilege. The funny thing is that the ‘Slumdogs’ that Rich is talking about in his article are not Indians but ordinary Americans. Is it all that surprising that an American worker who has recently been laid off and had his home foreclosed even as Wall Street rewards itself with multi-billion dollar bonuses using his taxpayer dollars identifies with the lot of hero Jamal Malik?
In this environment, the story of a little guy battling the odds and coming out a winner and finding his true love struck a chord with audiences. There is no shortage of the embattled little guy these days, even in developed countries. The autoworker in America’s Midwest who has seen his job disappear. The ordinary investors who have seen their savings vanish in Ponzi investment schemes. The 45 million Americans without health insurance. The Icelanders and East Europeans who have seen their economies collapse. These days, one doesn’t need to go all the way to the third world to find a Jamal Malik.
A master stroke by Danny Boyle was to choose Bollywood’s conception of love. Jamal’s love for Latika is what most Hindi movie viewers are used to: pure, unswerving and unsophisticated. Hollywood’s more realistic portrayal of boy-meets-girl is usually full of nuance and deliberation almost as though a game is being played. Slumdog Millionaire, like Titanic chooses the fairytale and comes out a winner.
And then there is that connection across cultures. In one classic scene in the movie, Jamal is not able to answer the question as to what is written below the Ashoka lions on India’s national crest. When confronted by the inspector (Irrfan Khan) as to why he did not know the answer to such a simple question, Jamal retorts by asking Irrfan Khan the cost of bhelpuri at Chowpatty beach or whether he knows who stole Constable Varma’s bicycle. Most folks worldwide are not concerned with the great national debates or issues but with more ordinary bread and butter issues. With the advent of the internet and growing diversity in North America and Europe, people feel connected to the ordinary concerns of others in ways never seen before. And ‘the others’ are not just people within their own country’s borders.
After the 2004 tsunami, politicians in the Western world were caught by surprise when they were goaded by the public and the media into donating billions to the
tsunami affected countries. Whether it is abolishing poverty, treating communicable diseases, choosing to consume products of fair trade only, providing sanitation or preventing climate change, cross-country efforts by individuals, governmental and non-governmental agencies have grown exponentially during the last decade. The will to understand and solve problems across borders through cooperation, effort and investment has never been greater. These efforts are different from goody-goody
patronising efforts of the past. They are based on self-respect and enthrone the interests of individuals over that of nation states. India may think its poverty that mortgages the future of generations as its ‘sovereign’
problem, but the world does not see it that way. The world was outraged when India refused to accept
tsunami help believing rightly that the elites who run India were placing ‘national pride’ over the interests of its citizens (the Indian reaction to the outrage was similar to the Indian reaction to
Slumdog Millionaire). China and Zimbabwe may consider their human rights record an internal matter. The world begs to differ.
To be sure, much of this effort has been in enlightened self-interest. The treaty of Versailles created Hitler and resulted in the Second World War and the Holocaust. The Marshall Plan created two economic powerhouses that would reshape the world order — Japan and Germany. Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse) argues that it is biogeography and socio-economic-climatic factors as opposed to race that determine the success of societies. 9/11, SARS, climate change and the sub-prime crisis have shown how problems in one country can quickly cross borders. Charlie Wilson’s War starring Tom hanks reminds us that it was the wilful neglect of Afghanistan after the Soviet pullout that made it a terrorist haven. So while enlightened viewers may not judge India, they would be right to worry whether Jamal and Salim, who see their mother burnt alive before their eyes by rioting mobs, would not be ideal recruits for terrorist cells who could wreck havoc worldwide. Illiteracy, urban poverty, squalor, and violence are international problems and may need to be addressed as such.
In a peculiar way, the happy ending of Slumdog Millionaire is a tribute to the ability of India’s democracy, economic growth and syncretism to absorb the extraordinary pressures placed on it. But the success of the movie, as we have seen, is bigger than India and its problems.
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