24 January, 2009

The Slumdog Millionaire Debate

What is it about Slumdog Millionaire that stirs up extreme reactions! From cravings such as ‘why can’t an Indian filmmaker make such a film” to snide remarks like “Slumdog Millionaire could only have been made by a westerner”, reactions to the film encompass an entire rainbow of emotions. Is it a nation’s collective aspiration of Golden Globes-Oscars and an industry’s repeated failure to get closer to it? Is it a submission to the “trickery” of a dexterous western director or a critical examination of his biases? Is this a victim’s cry of being subjugated of yet another foreign gaze or it is the jubilation of an Indian cast and crew for getting the attention of the world that they think rightly deserve?

The debate also seems to have attained a rightist fervor, India’s biggest film icon Amitabh Bachchan reportedly commented on the film “”if SM projects India as [a] third-world, dirty, underbelly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky underbelly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations.”

A Guardian blog posted by Nirpal Dhaliwal, looks for a racial angle in the debate “Bachchan is no doubt riled, as many other Bollwood no-talents will be, about the fact that the best film to be made about India in recent times has been made by a white man”

All these allegations/arguments cover a wide range of issues and definitely deserve a critical scrutiny.

One of the basis of such arguments is “success” of the film that is defined by Golden Globes and various other awards that the film has won in the US and the UK. According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) the film has won 31 awards apart from 4 Golden Globes and 37 nominations. Awards can definitely be taken as a parameter of critical success and 31+4 is an impressive score to begin with. Interestingly, most of the awards the film has won had been given by critics societies in the US and UK.

I do see a point in the arguments that the critical acclaim that the film has garnered is because of its western origins. Primarily because it reached those bodies which confer these awards.

This also makes us think if the film would have got such kind of attention, had it been made by an Indian director? The biggest handicap that I see is we don’t have a tradition of critical awards here in India. Here each business house representing a publication organizes an awards night of their own, that turns out to be more of an exercise to boost their brand, or draw TRPs or strengthen ties with stars than critically evaluate cinema.

Yes, we do have national awards but firstly, they run behind the schedule. By the time our Golden Lotuses are announced a film has already done its commercial runs (if released) and the ones which don’t get a release are forgotten. Besides, also lies the danger of awards being challenged in the courts.

We (except annual festivals) have no mechanism to screen, evaluate and reward a film independently and the ones that exist are either questionable or are too small to make a difference. Hence, the only means to judge success or failure of a film is its box office performance.

Isn’t it a little too much to expect from a Chicago critic’s circle or a critics association in LA to reward an Indian film for its intrinsic Indian qualities? They are bound to be better appreciative of a film if the director shares their sensibility. So yes, the fact that Slumdog is a film made and written (the screenplay) in English by westerners can make a difference in its critical evaluation, simply because the maker and evaluator share the same sensibility.

Isn’t it more practical to expect from an Indian film to win Indian awards and leave American awards to American films! Earlier we’ve seen films on the theme of Indian slums made by Indian directors and they’ve won critical acclaims in the country. Sudhir Mishra’s Dharavi won a national award and so did Mira Nair Salaam Bombay.

Things get complicated when we start thinking that American Awards belong to the whole world and Slumdog Millionaire is an Indian film. First leads to our craving for western awards especially Oscars and second leads to our claim of being victim of standardization.

2004, the year I came to Mumbai, I was amazed to see Shiva Sena, a right wing extremist nationalist party, collecting donations on the streets to support a Marathi film that was selected as India’s official entry to the Academy Awards in the foreign language category that year.

We have had discussed here earlier if American Academy is a fair judge, however, the point is also that how can a purely American academy (consisting of only US citizens as voters) be just to films rooted in alien cultures? So arguably, Slumdog being a film from a western perspective does help here and it has a favorable chance of getting nominated.

Another argument against the film is related to the issue of representation-the imagery that the film presents. According to some it exposes “the underbelly” of our rapidly developing country. I don’t subscribe to this argument either because I’m not unexposed to the underbelly of India. Firstly, its too manifest to be protected from anybody’s gaze. Secondly, our very own filmmakers be it Mishra (Dharavi) or Nair (Salaam Bombay) reveal it. You also see glimpses of it in Black Friday, even No Smoking, Life in a Metro and Sirf to name a recent few. Since these filmmakers are Indian, they have a right to showcase slums and Danny Boyle doesn’t, this argument doesn’t hold the test of scrutiny in a globalized world.

Is the film a stereotypical portrayal of India? The question calls for further discussion on what’s a stereotypical image of India and who decides that? If stereotype here means recurrent images of India in the western media and indophilic texts, then I would say that it has both Taj and Slums but neither hippies, snake charmers, naked Sadhus, veiled women, Maharajas nor elephants and hundred others. While the story is based in the slums of Mumbai, they can’t be done without. Taj also is a part of the narrative and you can’t deny Danny a chance to show Taj in his film only because it can be considered stereotypical representation of India and the director is a Briton!

Questions have also been raised about simplistic portrayal of the characters, who lack depth. I would agree that there were inconsistencies in the characters including the protagonist, however, the film was more concerned about the plot rather than taking us closer to the characters. I also believe the strategy of the director works because one gets hooked into the narrative as the film progresses. Though, largely remaining unsentimental, the film also manages to evoke sympathy if not empathy and identification with the central character. I know Indian mainstream (read Bollywood) conventions would have demanded little bit of more emotional appeal (like Chak De India) or an offbeat film (usually called “art film”) would have delved too deeper into the character but Danny Boyle’s narrative strategy can’t be questioned as long as it works. I think it strikes a fine balance between providing facts and paving way for fantasy.

Yes, what is simplistic about the film is the way it defines success. In the rags to riches story of Jamal Malik, success simply means money (the millions that he wins) and honey (the girl for whom he does that). It also has a tendency to escape to fancy means to resolve the real issues of slums, communal violence and child beggars through the means of a reality show. Some ten-fifteen years back the Jamal Malik of Slumdog (had it been a Hindi film by an Indian director) could have turned into a vagabond seething in vengeance, who would have sealed the fate of the rioters who killed his parent, the beggar mafia who blinded kids and the local don who stole both his brother and beloved.

However, that would have happened at least a decade ago. Now even Hindi cinema has moved forward, don’t you remember, recently we raved a film that realistically depicted a real issue and offered just a fantasy for a solution. Khosla ka Ghosla can’t be trashed because it fantasizes the solution of the problem of land grabbing in Delhi in order to make us probably laugh and feel better.

Probably, Hindi cinema audience haven’t gotten over our parallel cinema and still associate “realistic” (on location, hand held camera) approach of filming to issue based, cause oriented cinema. This cinema more often than not had a leftist leaning and was often overtly political. On the other hand, Danny Boyle is a new age, apolitical, post modern filmmaker, who known his craft well. Any similarities are just incidental.

Nevertheless, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog is more realist and contemporary. Perhaps after winning millions, Jamal will simply move a rung up in the social ladder, come out of the underbelly to the surface where India is rapidly growing. If Bollywood offers escapist fantasies then only difference about Boyle’s Slumdog is that his escape is fantastical!

1 comment:

Roy Stafford said...

Very useful article for us in the West working on Slumdog and its reception in India. I take your point about the memory of parallel cinema, but I think your profiling of Danny Boyle needs to be slightly more nuanced. He certainly isn't a 'political' director as such, but he is conscious of his working class background and has generally chosen directing commissions that are interested in working class characters. Much of the coverage in the UK of his Oscar success was focused on his return to his family and roots to show off the prize. Boyle is certainly a 'rooted' person and his Northern English cultural identity marks him out in a Hollywood context. Something similar, but less pronounced, could be said about Simon Beaufoy, at least in terms of his background in the culture of small town Northern England.

Perhaps the issue is that mainstream Indian writers/directors don't retain their own roots when they move into popular cinema production?