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A "Jai Ho" to Slumdog Millionaire

March 2009
A "Jai Ho" to Slumdog Millionaire

When I saw Slumdog Millionaire in December, I found myself cringing several times through the film. The graphic display of slums and the ungodly lives of its characters were quite unsettling. Broadly speaking, the film dwells a good bit on the worst of humanity. Sure, the themes of man’s triumph over his circumstances and the search for love were not lost on me. Yet, the gut-wrenching poverty, and the dog-eat-dog world of Jamal and other tender-aged kids did not speak kindly of Indian society.

The film’s gradual rise from a sleeper, low-budget production to the top dog at the Oscars was therefore a bag of mixed feelings. The India that was getting play on the world stage was certainly not one that I was proud of.

The fact that the story is set in Mumbai, my hometown, made it that much more personal and discomforting. My impulsive reaction was to cry foul—that this was not the Mumbai I remember growing up in. But after the momentary reactive phase, I reasoned. Was the film misrepresenting Mumbai? Hardly. Other than a cinematic license for embellishment, there is nothing in it about the city’s slum life that can be categorically challenged.

And yet, I asked myself, what was it that was so fundamentally incongruent between Slumdog’s Mumbai and the Mumbai that I actually grew up in? It struck me that growing up as I did in the city, the world of Jamal was almost as foreign to me as it perhaps is to global audiences. I do say “almost”—because, after all, the sights, sounds and smells of slums are unavoidable in a city like Mumbai. But what is avoidable, and was indeed firmly shutout by the middle-class Indians, was the actual experiencing of the slum world. Remarkably, slums were a part and parcel of our horizons, yet a world apart!

I remember, as a child, renting bicycles during summer vacations from a dingy bike rental and repair shop at the outskirts of one such expanse of slums. We could see the narrow alleys leading into the underbelly of the shantytown. Even though they were less than a football field away from the bicycle shop, they may as well have been another planet.

It is this disconnect that enfranchised Indians have with the slums that may be the reason behind the allegations of “poverty porn” and “slum voyeurism” directed at the film. Since we have a built-in, deeply seeded blind spot for the slum world, we tend to rebel when it is highlighted to the forefront in all its naked authenticity.

Is our discomfort with the setting and subject matter of the film reason enough to lash out at its makers? If it were so, then landmark works of art on dark topics such as the Nazi concentration camps, for instance, would also be suspect. But the fact is, it is not director Danny Boyle’s fault that Mumbai is the way it is; or that we don’t care to acknowledge, much less associate, with that aspect of the city. Nor can Boyle be faulted for choosing to make a compelling film on the dark side of urban India. Just because Boyle is a foreigner doing so doesn’t make him a part of a Judeo-Christian conspiracy to malign India. As far-fetched as it sounds, such allegations routinely and predictably surface each time self-appointed saviors of the India brand have an issue with how the country is portrayed—regardless of the underlying reality.

This penchant amongst some of us for shooting the messenger says more about us than about those whom we criticize. It reveals us as hypocrites. In the absence of Slumdog Millionaire, were we so concerned about slums in India? Why is it that most of us are hardly bothered by the abject poverty in India except when it gets play on the world stage? Yes, we may dispense a few charity dollars now and then towards them, but by and large, we don’t give two hoots about the slums and their residents. But as soon as an outsider puts their plight in the spotlight, we are suddenly bent out of shape.

Once I went through this range of emotions and perceptions, it became easier to celebrate the success of the film. Boyle’s decision to use the squalor of Mumbai as the setting may be nothing more than a passionate storyteller’s search for a gripping tale. But in doing so, he gave an enviable platform to Indian players—the most striking outcome of which was A. R. Rahman’s two Oscars. While these are reasons enough for kudos to Boyle, the heartiest “Jai Ho” goes to him for doing more for India’s slum dwellers than his critics ever could.

-Parthiv N. Parekh

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