Why Slumdog can irk an Indian
India has more-or-less embraced Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire even to the extent of appropriating it in many way, but then again, it has got the country it’s first Golden Globe and is the only real hope for an Oscar, something to die-for. There may be a wild backlash at Amitabh Bachchan’s criticism of the film, but there is something to say about an indignation that one can feel when a film like this comes along.
It is absolutely true that the people the film deals with are not the underbelly of the country, but the overwhelming masses. It is also true that this reality is overlooked and even consciously hidden by our cinematic culture, at least in popular films. Personally, I don’t think the film is an example of Orientalism. There is an ugly truth that most of us who are slightly more privileged like to avoid, but I think the negative response to the film boils down to a very basic emotion of insider vs outsider. At a time when we are busy trying to prove that poverty in the country is being handled, when the beautification drive is moving at an unprecedented speed, a portrait of ourselves, by an outsider, hits us badly. The mutual understanding between the upper classes, the upper middle classes and the leadership is of not acknowledging this truth is shattered. Not only are we being faced with our own ugly reflection, it is being flaunted all over the world. Our ugliness has got a white man awards after awards, and the only thing it got us is discomfort.
There is also, however, a flip side to this argument and that relates more directly to awards. Think back to the Indian films that have made it to the hallowed chambers of Oscar nominees. Mother India, Salaam Bombay, and Lagaan. Not only is it politically correct to appreciate these movies in India, but it is also in the West. The white man cannot undo the history of slavery and abuse across the world, but he can appear to have moved on to a state where he appreciates the ‘truth’ of a country’s plight. By nominating these films, it is almost as if a therapeutic step has been taken that absolves the west of the role it played in establishing these unfortunate, underdeveloped circumstances.
Notions of ‘truth’ and its depiction are always tricky. Yes, Slumdog has hit upon a reality, but are those who are bestowing award on this film, have any idea of how truthful or otherwise this description is. If Lagaan is anything to judge by, then not really. The film was undoubtedly entertaining, but was there anything remotely plausible or realistic about it? Forget realism, what was happening on the detailing front. What was the dialect these supposed Gujaratis were speaking in, why was it there, where was the detailing of costumes, where was Gujarat in the entire film, other than a mere mention? Most Indians didn’t realize these little details, how can a person or persons who may not have heard the word Gujarat before be the right judges?
One can argue that any anger towards this film has to be directed at ourselves first, because it is afterall based on a novel written by an Indian. There is however, a counter-argument. First, that Indians can be as guilty of presenting a west-friendly image of India (the likes of Arundhati Roy and Aravind Adiga have come under this brand of criticism in the past). Second, that out of the vast treasury of Indian literature, Boyle picked this one. Selection of texts, events and images and their construction is crucial in understanding the intention behind a film.
The final question, would the film have been drastically different if an Indian had made it? There is no answer to this, because the answer depends less on the nationality and more on the sensibility of a director, and sadly, Bollywood is a victim of its own, repeated flaw of stereotyping and lack of research. The best of directors make the most surface-oriented films and we love them (remember the film Aamir), and put them on a pedestal, thereby encouraging their weak understanding. I don’t agree with Nirpal Dhariwal who did us the service of putting Amitabh Bachchan in his place but also the disservice of a statement like “Only a white man could have made Slumdog.” To unthinkingly give this blanket clearance to this huge entity – the white man is nothing short of childish.
The bottomoline however is that Amitabh is as guilty of presenting a one-sided picture of India as Danny Boyle. If he can defend himself on the grounds of entertainment, so can Boyle, because it is a work of fiction.