Saturday, February 21, 2009

Of Indian Slums and Englishmen

Sex sells, porn sells, poverty sells too! Especially when it has to do with 'modern mysticism' of urban India in times of ubiquitous call centers, electronic media, reality TV etc- perhaps the only country with such starkly contrasting realities, seamlessly woven in its sociocultural fabric. Sure this movie will break all boxoffice records abroad and get as many awards in various international film festivals. India, in this format has always been a bestseller - in print or cinema like all those images of India constructed by the West for the western audience.

I got a chance to watch Slumdog Millionaire* when it premiered on TataSky, didn't want to miss this much-talked-about movie, that too, when it is being served at the comfort of my living room at a nominal price of Rs.25.Would I have seen it in the theatres? Perhaps not! Too much of publicity often kills interest in watching a movie, especially with so-called 'global recognition' and a plot like slum-kids-poverty.

I knew as an Indian I was watching this movie at my own risk. Having watched it I can't remain silent, a keen student of Cinema that I am. The plot of the movie (and the imminent trend it's going to set with apparent neo-realisitc portrayal of a single aspect of India) was so striking that I shall refrain from going into other themes like the love story, the street smartness of kids, music or screenplay.

Now to the movie - it seems to have all the ingredients that could please the voyeuristic palate of typical 'western' audience when it comes to an Indian subject. I don't think it offered me anything new other than blatant exploitation of people in slums. Very correct, it has nothing for the Indian audience but we are curiously positioned since it is made on our subject, with our actors on our soil. We are caught in a complex interplay of emotions because though the subject is not alien to us it's treatment is!

Sure, for us, poverty is something we live and breathe all around us - be it beggars at traffic signals and places of worship or slums adjacent to our skyscrapers. Poverty is both organized and unorganized - it is 'natural' and inflicted though its 'eradication' is always on top of the agenda for any government. But we don't see the glamour side of poverty - in fact we may be ashamed of it, we feel guilty and we may abhor it and shun it but we don't hesitate in accepting this aspect of our reality. For the west, our slums present a spectacle of human condition with unending scope for dissolute perception and misrepresentation.

When hunger, deprivation, nakedness and homelessness become subjects of attraction for a Westerner especially an Englishman, say Danny Boyle, you know what you can the stereotypical BBC or CNN. No difference here: instead of those images here you have a collage stitched with a popular game show (an English game show in Indian avatar) , in the backdrop of callcenter and reality TV that present a 'contemporary' India. Because of the similarity of subject, I was suddenly reminded of Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay but later felt that these two are as different and hence there can be no comparison.

The same set of questions arise again: why is Indian media raving and ranting about this film? Why do we/the film industry yearn for 'global' recognition be it Golden Globe or Oscar or whatever, isn't appreciation from our billion - a verdict big enough? There's nothing in this movie that can make any Indian feel great even from cinematic perspective, other than opening up more commercially competitive avenues of making and selling cinema or music (A R Rahman type, btw I love Rahman's music, that's besides the point). True global recognition lies in accepting our reality by others, as we see it in the backdrop of our history, our culture and our unique socio-political milieu - but this will not fetch awards! The west would reward us for what they would like to see in our movies. And I'm sure no self-respecting Indian would stoop so low to make poverty a subject of entertainment at this scale. Don't be surprised if "Indians" get Oscars thanks to this movie - a recognition manipulated and managed by Englishman for Indians with an overt agenda of inviting more on similar subjects. Let's not equate such an 'honour' with Bindra's gold medal in Olympics or similar feats.

*I haven't read the book "Q and A" by Vikas Swarup on which this movie is based.

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