'Slumdog' sacrifices Indian pride


Danny Boyle’s film wallows in tired cliches of abysmal poverty and mindless villainy, writes PRIYA RAJSEKAR.

IT WAS no movie for the little boy transported from the slums of Mumbai to the glamorous red carpet at the Oscars. On a platform that makes even veterans weak in the knees, this boy who on a normal day deems a borrowed tarpaulin sheet his home, stood unwavering in his designer dinner jacket, dignified smile in place, as he thanked the people who had made this journey possible.

Yet, in the movie that swept the Oscars, he and his poverty-ridden friends are seen devoid of any dignity and pride – as slum “dogs”, a different species inhabiting a different world.

The mood of the moment is one of exhilaration, not just for those involved in the making of the movie, but also for Indians, worldwide. This despite the fact that it has taken this cultural treasure trove with more than a billion people over 80 years to get this far, and that too with a great deal of hand-holding by a British filmmaker.

Going by the media frenzy in India this week, it would seem a Bollywood movie won the award. There is great pride, hope and a sense of having arrived on the global cinema scene, with three of the eight Oscars won by Indians. Yet, in many Indian minds, there is this nagging doubt that the journey to Oscar glory may have exacted too high a price for India’s international image. Keeping with the spirit of the moment, even the sceptics are calm, cheering the winners on, but will the adulation last?

Targeted at a western audience that has always loved fairytales with happy endings, Slumdog Millionaire is just what the doctor ordered for the recession. For a hardcore movie fan, the over-hyped squalor and violence, the impeccable British accent of an unschooled teenager and even the hero’s improbable feat is merely the suspension of disbelief. But, for the average Indian, and the average Indian emigrant, the liberal use of stereotypes rankles. It is difficult not to squirm when, seated with a western audience, one witnesses the graphic portrayals of abuse and poverty, as though India has little else to offer. Given that India now makes more movies than Hollywood and that every year it has religiously sent in its Oscar hopefuls, many brilliant, and I dare say far better than Slumdog Millionaire, it is rather ironic that a non-Indian’s depiction of life in India is more palatable to the world than an all-Indian creation.

There are many obvious reasons why the movie is regarded a masterpiece.

However, if one has read the original novel, Q & A, by Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, it is hard to ignore certain deliberate and strategic changes. Why has the name of the protagonist, a secular Ram Mohammed Thomas, been changed into an easily identifiable Muslim name, Jamal Malik? Why not a Hindu name to go with the Hindu-dominated country? Were the repercussions of Hindu-Muslim tensions so relevant to the central theme of the movie? Then again, the novel itself is not so rooted in the slums and there is far less of an effort to draw attention to the sword-wielding Hindu fundamentalist.

In truth, about 65 million Indians live in slums around India and this includes migrants from neighbouring countries. It is a sad reality, and undoubtedly something to be moved by and ashamed of. But, taken in the context of a billion Indians, it is easy to see that India has a lot more to it than abysmal poverty and mindless villainy that the movie uses as a leitmotif.

Sudheer Mishra, a popular Indian director of the critically acclaimed movie Dharavi, named after Asia’s largest slum, had an interesting anecdote to narrate on the subject of stereotyping.

After an interview with him soon after the release of Dharavi, the foreign TV crew he’d been with went on to shoot the inside of a slumdweller’s hut. The rolling cameras were abruptly halted, however, the minute the crew realised the hut was equipped with a television set.

Sure, Slumdog Millionaireis a little better than the usual association with “turbaned”, wrinkly snake charmers and elephants lazing across the roads but doesn’t a country with leading space technology, nuclear power and IT excellence deserve more?

As an unsolicited exercise in defamation, even as it warms the heart and lifts the human spirit in true fairytale style, it wilfully discourages the average tourist to India, for whom the graphic, stark images of misery will easily overwhelm any painstakingly made holiday brochure. The boy covered in human waste epitomising the slumdweller’s spirit may attract the moviegoer but will without doubt keep at bay any kind of inward investment that will bail the slumdweller out.

It should not be forgotten that in the beginning, Vasco da Gama and even Christopher Columbus had originally set out to find not “slum” India, but the El Dorado that India was.

Director Danny Boyle’s tributes to the Mumbai spirit and the Indian artists in the movie has been generous. His career and those of the lucky winners will be star-studded. And as the flavour of the season, Bollywood itself is living its own “Bollywood dream” at the moment – of making it big in Hollywood.

But for the little Indian “slumdogs” who have given the movie its soul, this is a fleeting moment. For when the clock strikes midnight, these people who have helped create many millionaires around the world will return to their tarpaulin-roof homes, to take their usual place beside their colleagues, too proud and too dignified to “ask for more”. City of Joyhas done little for Kolkatta (Calcutta), and Slumdog Millionairewill do little for Dharavi.

As for the price for the prize, it is quite evident the underdogs have paid up.

Priya Rajsekar is a freelance journalist from Tamil Nadu state in southern India. She has been living in Ireland for 10 years.

Breda O’Brien is on leave