Slumdog Millionaire is a movie about India and has cast many Indian actors in it. As an unprecedented achievement many Indians won the Academy awards. AR Rahman, a celebrated Indian music creator, won two Oscars. I am quite happy for him. Awards are always welcome. They make you feel good. Yes, Indians should indeed celebrate these accolades. Why shy away from celebrating it, even if it means highlighting India’s poverty?
However, in this whole euphoria, very few Indians seem to realize that Slumdog Millionaire is not an Indian movie, the way Gandhi was not an Indian movie though it was all about Indians.
Times of India (TOI) splashed its first page with stories of Slumdog Millionaire’s Academy Awards as if Indian cinema won the Oscars. Indian media celebrated this achievement with great fanfare, once again, vicariously. Last year when an international agency won the Nobel Prize, the Indian newspapers celebrated it as if it was won by an Indian – just because that agency was headed by an Indian. Most six-graders in India are now answering the quiz question, ‘Which Indian won Nobel Prize recently?’ with, ‘Pachauri’.
We need to stop taking credit for everything and anything great – just because an Indian happens to be involved – whether it is NASA launching its rockets, Intel making its chipsets, or Microsoft making its software. Being involved does not make it ours. There are times when the credit is given to a country – like Olympics or Nobel Prizes, where we have to humbly admit that India does not bag them as frequently as other countries.
Many Indophiles, including Amitabh Bachchan, Salman Rushdie, and Amir Khan, criticized this movie – as being unrealistic or for unnecessarily exporting India’s poverty.
Yes, like any movie, Slumdog Millionaire makes improbable things probable. Most of us who are familiar with India’s poverty know that one can’t escape it so easily - definitely not the way it is done in the movie - winning 2 Crore rupees on a quiz show. We don’t see many slum dwellers of India becoming literate on their own without access to schools, making it to the quiz show, or speaking good English.
The outcome of the events may be unrealistic, but the destitution and squalor shown in the movie is far too real. India houses the most of the poorest people on the planet. It houses the most of the starving people of the planet. The population of its poor is bigger than the population of whole of Europe and many African countries put together.
Most of us living in India have created a mechanism in our brains to consciously ignore the blatant ills and evils that confront us on a daily basis. Most of us turn our head away from that begging child at the traffic light. The reality is far too discomforting, therefore we choose not to look at it.
The reasoning is simple: ‘there is no way you can solve this problem. Why fret over it?’
Slumdog Millionaire depicts the dark side of India in its true colors – which the middle-class and upper-class of Indians have conveniently chosen to ignore for many years now. We are confronted with our dark side when someone puts a mirror in front of us – as in this case done by a foreign director. Most foreigners tend to look at a country in black and white. Sometimes they are wrong, but sometimes they are right in calling spade a spade.
When visitors from the West land up in India, they look at India with great curiosity, and they look at the poverty too, without missing it. Some of them speak out. But then they have to put up with zillions of excuses and even justifications on how and why such poverty exists. Argumentative Indian can shut up any rational voice raising enough dust with sophistry. Though these visitors may just shut up, but they do not fail to notice it.
Even some of us Indians, if we chose to, can open our eyes and see the squalor, the ugliness, the wretchedness of India which is all pervading. Hundreds of kids in India continue to beg, sell on streets, work in cafes, work in construction sites, etc. There begging children in most towns and cities. Sometimes if you end up in those by-lanes late in the evening, you will see a lady surrounded by the begging children. If you bother to notice, you will know that she is collecting the day’s earnings from them. The kids are her recruits. Most of them get bullied and they in turn bully other weak kids. It’s a dog eat dog world. No room for niceties and pleasantries. Some of them grow up and start using drugs- they are rubber, gum, and other medicines concocted with other homemade items. This is the dark side of India that middle-class India consciously chooses to ignore.
Like the middle-class India, Indian movies have moved away from admitting the dark side of India. When I was living in US, one lady after watching few Indian movies thought India was exactly like Switzerland, because every song seems to transport the actors into such locations. When she was told that’s not India, she asked, ‘can I see a movie in which they actually show India?’ It was tough to find one such movie.
India has many versions of itself – and Slumdog Millionaire is one such version. This is not the version of India that Yash Chopra or Karan Johar likes to portray. This version shows squalor, poverty and destitution in its nakedness. It shows the ugliness as it is – without embellishing it or without toning it down.
We don’t have to be proud nor ashamed of this version of India. We have to confront this version of India eventually, now or later. Many of us are living in islands of prosperity, protecting ourselves with tall walls. But then we do get a chance to face that version everyday whenever we get out, at the traffic lights, during riots, in the night when you are coming back from the pub, looking at them as waiters, cleaners, drivers, as employees. You do not dare to take a peek into their lives, but they are grim reminders that not everything is so hunky dory about the India you have made. That there is a version of India that we have left behind in our race, and that India continues to show itself once in a while, reminding us that we can’t go too far, because these wretched are connected to us.
In one way, Slumdog Millionaire is far too real, very unlike of most Indian movies. May be, it’s because we are compelled into owning up what is being shown on the screen. The ugliness of India is something that we have to own up now – no longer can we see it the way we see a movie like Hotel Rwanda, where there is suffering, but that suffering is so far away in a distant land, that we can me afford to be apathetic to it if we wanted to. While watching the movies like Hotel Rwanda, we can sympathize, feel sad and feel enraged during the time the movie is screened, but at the end of the movie, we can at least walk out telling ourselves, ‘it’s not our problem!’ Showing Slumdog Millionaire to Indians is like showing Hotel Rwanda to Rwandans. It’s too close to you that you actually feel burdened.
Should we feel sad that this foreign director has ‘unnecessarily’ highlighted the wretched India to his profit, that India is now exporting its poverty to win laurels? Movies come in all shapes and sizes, some of them have a good message and some do not. Some are good movies and some are not. If India is wretched, why not show that wretchedness on the big screen? Why do we have to take so much pain to show only the shining India?
India is at the helm of becoming a developed world, and as a consequence we will be asked to mature up – whether we like it or not. And that process of maturing up involves asking ourselves some hard questions and admitting hard facts. India’s squalor, poverty and beggary are hard facts that we have to confront one way or the other. Slumdog’s Millionaire is one small step in that direction.