Sunday, March 01, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire: Accolades and Reality

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.


  1. Bachan said SlumDog is showing "the darker side of India". Ironically, it's the same man who finds nothing unusual in Kabhi khushi kabhi gham or kabhi alvida na kehna.Is truth so hard for us to digest ? Bacchan & co represents a minuscule part/side of India..contrary to what Bachan said, the so called Indian movies (aka Bollywood) is bit too romantic about the dreamy side of India (virtual India) which doesnt exist in reality...and the movies are shot outside India as well..I think that is an insult to India not slum dog millionaire...This is not a new allegation from this class..Such criticisms have been around ever since the great Satyajith Ray who was also accused for selling Indian poverty..People who analyzes cinema seriously wants to see real characters in flesh & blood ,real premise,realistic sequences,real & subtle human emotions..not substanceless,melodramatic flick

    I dont give any value to such shallow,mediocre criticisms..Iam not ashamed to talk about Indian poverty to anyone..Iam not ostrich minded to hide my head in the sand refusing to confront the
    issues that are facing me..

    I thought slumdog was an average movie;it was not even as good as milk..As much as I appreciate the technical perfection of the movie,I also think that the premise (the whole substance) of the movie was weak & bit too melodramatic..I would say it is a hollywood version of Bollywood melodrama..lot of stereotypes,lot of logical flaws..A beautifully directed bollywood flick..

    According to Bacchan we should shut our eyes to the real India which he & his likes calls the "other side of India"..Their India is India of millionaires and page 3 celebrities... what a pity!!

    for likes of mahesh bhatt & Bacchan "grapes are sour"..

  2. I appreciate that the director has made us to confront the dark side of India which we cant ignore. The problem is not what he said, but who said this. If the same movie is taken by an Indian director, we can accept. Why is this so?
    Because if it is taken by a Indian director, it is more probable that he has genuine motives.
    But in this case, he has not taken this movie to show us the dark side and enlighten us. These Western people whenever faced with a competitor (country) they just find fault and throw allegations. Ex: They call China as a autocratic country, has no regards to human rights, etc. They call Russia as Communist, etc. This is what political commentators call as "the mask of new imperialism". Not only the west but every country does on the other according to their conveniance.
    Ex: West say that they wont buy our products because it is manufactured using child labour. (Though their allegation is true). This doesnt mean they are actually concerned about the child labour in India. They just want to protect their domestic market & this is just a conviniant excuse.
    In the process of capturing our markets, outsourcing,etc. the US corporates have accidently hyped about India (made it have a good feel) in US. So now they are trying to somehow undo it.
    They have easily defamed their competitors(Russia, China). Now the problem is how to blame India. You cant say it is undemocratic country, it has no concern for human rights, etc. So they have now got some Child labour, poverty, etc.
    In this period of recession many are losing jobs & at the same time many jobs have already been outsourced to India. So they might have felt bad. But now they can console themselves by saying that there are countries worse than us.
    I am not trying to say India is not worse compared to US. But the way they have shown in the movie is like, there is nothing good in India. In fact the US cities are worse than what they depict in Hollywood movies (same like our movies).
    So we should accept what is shown in movie and try to do something. But at the same time we should not accept that the director did this for some divine purpose.

  3. Dear [Name in Tamil]:

    The problem is not what he said, but who said this. If the same movie is taken by an Indian director, we can accept… Because if it is taken by a Indian director, it is more probable that he has genuine motives.

    That’s a very simple view of life. That is not necessarily true. There are many instances and cases where outsiders had a genuine motive to help and support while the local people were not really keen on improving and bettering things.

    These Western people whenever faced with a competitor (country) they just find fault and throw allegations.

    While it is true that West goes around criticizing others, it is also true that West self criticizes itself more than anyone. The biggest critics of America and its policies are found in US. Either it is the protests of San Francisco/Berkeley or Noam Chomsky, some of the harshest critics of America are Americans.

    That criticism is not selective – directed only at other countries – but very much fabric of some of the modern democracies – however flawed they are.

    West say that they wont buy our products because it is manufactured using child labour. (Though their allegation is true). This doesnt mean they are actually concerned about the child labour in India.

    I agree that there are hypocrisies and double standards in the West. May be their concern is genuine and maybe it is not. Maybe accepting child labor is cultural or may be religious, but the important point is that they have taken a stance against something and they are going about executing it. It is also true that such stances have been hypocritical in the past – but at least there is an attempt. For most Indians, there is no stance.

    Now the problem is how to blame India. You can’t say it is undemocratic country, it has no concern for human rights, etc. So they have now got some Child labour, poverty, etc.

    If you think there is a great master plan to defame India and therefore someone funded this movie, I would say that it is a bit fantastic.

    There has always been a feel-good factor about the West in highlighting the poverty of the third world, but you have to understand that they are critical of their own weaknesses, discussing it in open forums, highlighting them, never covering them up.

    I am not trying to say India is not worse compared to US. But the way they have shown in the movie is like, there is nothing good in India.

    It’s how you take it. There are many movies about Nazi Holocaust and how Blacks were treated. They are the ills of the West and yet they do not make any attempt to cover them up. We may disagree with their versions, but you are entitled to make a movie of your own to set it right. Nobody stops you from doing it. You can make a movie about India showing only the best of India.

    In fact the US cities are worse than what they depict in Hollywood movies (same like our movies).

    But there are movies where they show their cities in bad light too.

  4. Dear Arun Kumar (the Name in Tamil)

    You do realize that your suspicion of the West is the same as the suspicion that the muslim world has when they are criticized for some of their negative things.

    Even if the motives are wrong, what is depicted is true and it is only mature that Indians own up to it.


    I was in US when the movie was released there. I got to see it in India before it was released there. I noticed that the Indians in US felt very defensive and vulnerable when the movie was brought up in lunch discussions.

    We had a team social where we went to a theatre to watch the movie. When I came out a white lady asked me with a shocked look on her face - "Are you from India? Is there such poverty in India?"

    I said "Ofcourse there is." I couldn't wonder what she thought of India. I am surprised that people think that India is not a poor country. I am very surprised. I think we have done a clever job in not only hiding the squalor of India from ourselves but from the rest of the world as well. I guess there is some truth to what my pakistani friends have to say - "india has the same problems as Pakistan. But it does a better job of marketing itself to the world"

    ~ Vinod

  5. As usual our very own indian nationalists are divided in their reaction too..One group celebrating mindlessly as if it is an Indian movie...The other section is despising the movie as the movie,according to them,is depicting the other side India & insulting us (hey how can you do that to our "shining" India)..

    [i]But in this case, he has not taken this movie to show us the dark side and enlighten us[/i]

    A film btw is a piece of art..and it should criticized on its artistic aspects..We have no right to dictate how a director should depict India..Its his bloody doesn't matter whether he is an african,american,german,brazilian, for art is universal....

  6. sujai:
    you said that, the director has no ulterior motive in making of this film. Even Jayakrishnan told that art is universal and there is nothing like german or brazil,etc.
    I accept he is innocent if he has taken film in hindi or telugu and released in India only. In US, whom he is trying to senstize by showing this. Then what is the use of releasing it there? So I say it is just for the viewing pleasure of the West and nothing else. The Hindi dubbing of the film is like other English movie dubbing in Hindi only. Their target audience is not Indians anyway.
    You say, West self-criticizes more than others. First of all I didnt say they dont criticize themselves. In fact in all the societies, people criticize of their own societies more than others'. Because they know about their own society better than what others know.
    If you think, we dont criticize that much about us and we try to cover things up. Then think, you are also an Indian, you criticize it for its betterment, you dont cover things up. There are many persons like you who also criticize. Some persons make impact on the society. Some take movies on it, thereby influencing the mindsets of the people.
    A example of our self-criticism. Recently "Naan Kadavul" film released in Tamil( at the sametime of slumdog release). It also highlights the plight of the very downtrodden (beggars,etc.), discussed some issues like euthanasia. Infact it shows India in more poor light than slumdog. It is more disgusting. Slumdog stands nowhere compared to it because it was able to show the reality more truly. It is a film for the masses to sensitize them on these issues. It has reached rural masses than urban people. It is a talk of the town. It has made an influence. But it is not the first nor the last film. Every 5 or 6 years some film comes like this. I dont know about telugu and hindi films, but I think there also it comes.
    If you want to see a change in the society it should come from the masses and not the other way round from the elites.So that movie should be for the masses.How many people in India have watched slumdog. what is the use of showing it in US. Even the hindi version is watched by many in urban areas only. How many are discussing about it.
    Have you ever heard of any Indian films showing foreign countries in poor light. There is no such films because we are very decent not to look their underbelly. But they are not so. We know we have our own problems so we dont see others'.
    I didnt direct that director should take the movie like this or that. But I have the right to say that he has taken it with an ulterior motive.
    I say they are for defaming India, because they are losing markets for us and the corporates are wary about this, that too in this recession period. You know, STAR TV group is one of the producers. See these media barons are nothing but the mouthpieces of the corporates there.

  7. In fact, "slumdog" millionaire is a blow to India's attempts of brain-washing the westerners that they are not "dogs". I have been outside India and I can really see that people have started behaving differently. In Britain, abusing Indians as "dogs" would further increase under influence of this movie. There is no way. Indians are inferior race and therefore all Indians have to tolerate their insult.

  8. Yes, India has its share of poor people, yes we have a good number slums to rival any other country in the world but we also have a good number of directors who've tackled poverty way better than Danny Boyle. Just because they have not been recognised by the American film industry doesn't mean they don't exist or that they hvaen't done great movies.

    This whole thing about Indians coming to terms with their sorrounding poverty through this particular movie is ridiculous. The Western media and its slavish imitators in India are making it sound as though Indian movies never depict slums or poverty (I can think of so many movies in Tamil alone which have shown slums, I'm sure there are movies in other languages too which have had similar themes).

    Problem is most people watch Bollywood trash and equate that with Indian cinema.

    The funny part is this movie is not even realistic (like it pretends to be). Its an out and out masala movie complete with a fairy tale ending. Just because it won Oscars doesn't make it a great movie. People should watch it and come to their own conclusions about how good/bad it is and not keep parroting what the media says.In my opinion its pretty average.

  9. Hi, the movie should be taken in a sportive way to correct Indian poverty, which i feel is still growing.


  10. Hey, I liked your post about Slumdog Millionaire. You and your readers might like this video that a friend sent me. It's a Bollywood version of an iTunes spot. It's another example of how Bollywood is entering the American culture. Keep up the good work reporting on filmy stuff!

    - Kiran

  11. Hey in the big picture, it shows how the whole of India is instead of a part of India. For example, I recently watched the City of God about a Brazil place and thats my impression of Brazil now. I agree that the whole Brazil is not like that, but thats how I am gonna visualise it. No one here knows much about India.. its only one description about India and no movie ever tries to move away from that (Cows in the streets). When they show India, they never miss the Cows in the street (even in the bucket list) But what people dont understand is.. no one here is familiar with any metros nor other places. Its not like no other country had poor people. Yes there are poor people in US and there have been movies on it too, but people watch a number of movies and they know that some people are poor. But with India, nobody knew about India until they see this film and the impression sticks until they see another film, which can be a long time from now.

  12. I think Indian movies do show all the glamour and hip life there are barely any Bollywood movies tht discuss issues of slum or poverty

  13. Either it is the protests of San Francisco/Berkeley or Noam Chomsky, some of the harshest critics of America are Americans.

    When was the last time Noam Chomsky's op-ed appeared in a mainstream American newspaper, or you saw him appear on a talk show or give his expert opinion on prime-time TV, or for that matter, non-prime-time TV? Those who cover him are very much in the margins.

    You obviously have missed movies by Madhur Bhandarkar, Ram Gopal Varma, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani and others who have not shied away from depicting Indian reality and showing us the mirror.

    And that's the issue: Danny Boyle is applauded for depicting reality (which is not the same as, and is being conflated with deeper analysis in the movie, of why that reality exists) whereas Indian directors who depict reality are not, by Indians. A clear case of looking up to the whitey for approval and applauding them showing us the mirror, with no analysis by these applauding Indians on why they are applauding.

    By the way, are Arundhati Roy, Vir Sanghvi and other writers like them not Indians? Because I can point to many articles by them which are critical of Indian society. The mainstream media in India is filled with people and personalities who criticize Indian society, so I don't know which world you live in.


  14. Manhattan, New York, USA:
    - Spiderman, superman, I am Legend, Godzilla, natural disasters like The Day After Tomorrow, alien attacks, etc etc all of them were based in manhattan representing the USA.

    and we have movies like the slumdog or city of joy or scores more. all representing india, little else. why are we perennially celebrating the poverty of india. surely there can be better stories foudn in india without having to show only the dark side of india.

    heck, there are palces in new york sub-urbs where the blacks have formed mafia zones where even the fbi and local law enforcement keep an arms length. there are columbian/ brazilian drug mafia in the LA region whom the cops dont touch. how about any hit movies from those regions ?

    of course we have poverty, we have a problem showing ONLY that. earlier we had snake charmers and the rope trick representing india, now we have the slums. so much for stereotyping!


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