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Sunday, February 8, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire : Joning The Debate

Posted by: danish Ahmed 6:54 PM

In my last post,i have appreciated the movie Slumdog Millionaire quite unabashedly but that does not mean that i agree with everything that is being said about this movie.

Slumdog Millionaire comes across as a great work of art, an insightful journey through the life of a slum dweller as he passes through different worlds which transition in the background seamlessly. In many ways it is more like Herman Hesse's "Siddhartha" and Paulo Coelho's "the Alchemist" rather than a realistic "bandit queen". I think what has appealed to the audiences world-wide is the protagonist's upbeat spirit rather than realism. In fact, the so-called "ugly India" serves only as the backdrop which constantly transforms providing only fleeting glimpses.

Boyle doesn't even scratch the surface and rightly so, the script revolves around the protagonist, not the background. It is therefore intriguing that the movie is being seen as a portrayal of the real India. The criticism started well before the movie was officially released in India making me wonder if the critics had actually seen the movie or were just being apprehensive because of past experiences.

The allegation that film-makers exploit India's poverty is not without a basis. Film-makers of Indian origin such as Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta are especially adept at seeking out tales of exploitation, brutalization and misery from the nooks and corners of India and take them to the Western audience as work of art. I do not blame the Western audience either, India to them has always been synonymous with two clich├ęs-poverty and spiritualism. Films portraying poverty and deprivation in India are thus more acceptable to Western audience.

However, these movies do not get good reception in India. Why? Is the Indian audience unwilling to look at its ugly face even when it is shown to them? A lot of non-Indians seem to harbour a feeling that all Bollywood movies are unrealistic and fantasy-based and that the Indian audience's perception of reality is influenced majorly by these movies. To them movies portraying the poverty-sticken and brutal face of India are ignored by Indian audiences because they don't want to see them. That may be true in some cases but not in all and certainly not in my case.
Why i never liked such movies is because i myself never found them authentic enough. They depict India from an outsider's eyes, not India as it is. Poverty, injustice, exploitation are far more painful than these movies portray. Something like Slumdog Millionaire never happens with India's slum dwellers, and neither are the teenaged chai-wallahs of Mumbai as polished and sophisticated as Dev Patel. The actor deserves the applause for the performance but the fact remains that he does not look a Mumbai slum-dweller in any way.

There are many other instances where reality and its portrayal in the movie don't see eye to eye.
The theme of the movie mocks at the most tragic aspect of the India's poor and underprivileged. The aspiration to escape dreadful living conditions by winning a fortune in a game show is not something that India's under-privileged can dream. Their aspirations always seem to be for better condition within the boundaries of their immediate realties. The day these deprived classes begin to dream of getting to the top,social injustice in India would start losing ground.

Contrary to popular perception, realism has always been there in Indian Cinema, its just that these movies never got the visibility that they deserved. Just a couple of years back, Madhur Bhandarkar's Traffic Signal based on the lives of Mumbai's underbelly did a better job portraying the reality. Realism has always been a part of Indian cinema, be it Satyajit Ray's social commentary or Hrishikesh Mukherjee's light hearted comedies. The 80's in particular,spawned a generation of serious actors whose talent has been recognized world over. Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Shekhar Kapoor are some of the names that have been synonymous with serious cinema.

However, it does not mean that popular Bollywood movies and stars did not contribute to serious cinema. Lets not forget that even Amitabh Bachchan has acted in movies like Aalaap, Abhimaan and Saudagar and SRK started his film career with movies like Maya Memsaab and Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naan. For a long time the difference between parallel and popular cinema remained stark but lately it is disappearing. Madhur Bhandarkar is just another member of the pack of film-makers whose movies have been successful because of realistic representation.

Looking back, some of my recent favourite movies like Parzania, Black Friday, Omkara, Page 3 and even Black seem more realistic the Slumdog Millionaire. So if Slumdog Millionaire has been nominated for realism then Parzania and Traffic Signal should have already won Academy awards. Unless, of course the Bollywood movies are considered eligible only if the film-makers do not belong to it.

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