Monday, 23 February 2009

Millionaires off our own slums

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Slumdog Millionaire is all the buzz now. India is visibly excited about the movie. And the media hasn’t been helpful in distracting us from it either. If anything, they’ve been fueling us further on.
In the last 2 days running up to the Oscars, India’s most popular news channel NDTV, couldn’t get enough of it. The news reader today was unable to wipe the smile of her face, verging on coy at times even. All other national and international news was suspended for these last 2 days, with 15 minute bulletins, every hour or so. Instead, they repeated the same footage over and over, which their reporter in the US had sent them.
It wasn’t just the media who was celebrating. Several images and videos of families and random people, in a state of jubilation, because of the success of the movie, were being circulated.
Sometimes I feel so disconnected, and wonder if the problem is really me.
I wasn’t celebrating the success of the movie. And when it won the 8 Oscars that it did, I wasn’t happy. I was not jumping in my seat for the movie, because it is yet another white man making money out of us. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the world thrives on disparity.

The success of the movie was not ours. Indians nothing. It was directed by a non Indian. The screen play was by a non Indian. The movie was financed too, by a foreign company. Its their creativity that has been showcased in the movie, not ours. It happened to be about Indians, set in India and used stumble-upon Indian actors in it.
And yes, thank goodness there happened to be an Indian musician and sound mixer on set, who were talented and got recognized. Of course I’m happy for Rahman, Pookutty and the kids. But what if they had not won? We here in India were celebrating the movie even before news of Rahman’s victory. We were celebrating the movie because we thought it a big deal that such an Indian flavoured movie should have made it so far in the Oscar race, when several earlier entrants by Indian directors, had failed to cut it.
I was very agitated today, with this news. I picked up a conversation with a bunch of friends, but was literally asking for a fight, and wanted to find if I was judging this situation wrongly. One of my friends said something which accurately summed up what was going on in India. He said that people in India are seeing this as a Bollywood/Indian movie making it to Hollywood, when really it is Hollywood that has come down to Bollywood. And Hollywood won, but we think Bollywood did.
Danny Boyle doesn’t ‘love’ India, and so came with the noble intention of taking an Indian story to America. He came with the sole intention of creatively challenging himself. And the movie got points not because of highly unusual concepts, amazing special effects or jaw dropping acting. Sure it had a good story with universal appeal, and hey, there’s a million bucks involved! But this movie got points for the novelty of it. I don’t think even Danny Boyle thinks he has done India a service, by drawing attention to our immense poverty. He’s just made a movie. There’s nothing wrong with what Danny Boyle did. Nothing wrong in directing a successful film, that makes a lot of money. So I have no accusations of him. My only accusation is of the Indian public, that is being so gullible and weak.
Why didn’t Lagaan, Taare Zameen Par, or a much older Malayalam movie called Kala Pani get this far? They definitely had better stories, and great acting too (presuming these are some of the criteria involved in picking Oscar winners).Were they too brown for someone's liking?
Everything about this movie was characteristically Bollywood. If a person who was unaware of the details of the movie had watched it, he would have presumed it was directed by some Chopra or Mishra. There was song and dance. There was even a train scene at VT, so dear to Indian cinema.
Any Indian could have made this movie.
It so happened that the foreigner was smart enough to make Indians act in a movie about us, but in English, so that it reached a larger audience, who were intrigued by a culture they had never been exposed to before. He mimicked us. The style is ours, the glory is his. The slums are ours, the millions are his. He is the millionaire, from our slums. The foreigners are always smart. That’s why I’m so sore.
And what’s also sad is, that Indians have made movies about the trash in our backyards before. But we failed to appreciate and encourage it. As another friend of mine said, we here in India are always quick to rush off to Switzerland to shoot, when we have so much here that we can showcase. And finally, a wise white man came along, who saw the potential in our slums, and used it to his advantage.
Yet another friend said that no matter what, she was proud because ‘India made history tonight.’ I can give the movie credit as a movie. But saying that it is of historical importance to India or has ‘put India on the international cinema map’ is na├»ve. I just don’t understand how this was an honour for us.
When the Namesake began to do well at international film festivals and awards, was Australia celebrating because Jacinda Barrett had played a role in it? Are we celebrating every time Kal Penn gets a role in an English flick? Also, in the hypothetical situation of an Indian making a movie about Guatemala, it would only be a cause of celebration for India, if the movie won big. However if only won of the Guatemalan actors won awards for his acting, it would not be our party. And in a role reversal, it would be the people of Guatemala who will be celebrating.
The movie wouldn’t have been as effective if a rich man had won a million bucks. It needed a poor man in squalid conditions to win it. And welcome to India!
I know I cant generalize, but a lot of the western world already thinks India is over populated, polluted and under developed. A movie like this, even though it has only depicted the truth (and I don’t have a problem that it did), has perpetuated this notion of India being Third World, in thousands of under developed minds. And we are dancing in the streets about it?!
What I want us to realize here, is that in this movie, India was only a subject.
What of those children who were recruited straight from the slums, Rubina and Azhar? They are going to grow up thinking that a white man changed their lives. And indeed he did. But when they think that the white man saved them, they’re also going to think their country abandoned them, thus perpetuating the cycle, of us coloured people constantly feeling subordinate to the ones without colour.
Why are we clamouring so? Why are we fawning for attention? Why do we need a pat on the back from the white man, to feel good about ourselves?
Some of the ideals that Gandhi built this country on, are Swadeshi: of one’s own, self sufficiency and self reliance. These ideals do not just pertain to not purchasing of foreign goods and wearing of khadi. It also urges us to take more pride in ourselves, and what we have. Nothing we are today is truly indigenous. Everything is a leftover from an earlier invader. But when are we going to have confidence to be original and take pride in our own Indian kichidi?
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