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April - May 2009


Musing over the Millionaire

by Nikhil Gajendragadkar

Slumdog Millionaire won 100 awards, including eight Oscars, this year. This prompted huge celebrations across India. What this film has and what clicked at this year’s award season?

Now that the euphoria has subsided, (star) dust, that accompanies awards, has settled; we can think about the most awarded film of the year-Slumdog Millionaire.

When it was released in UK and USA late last year, nobody in India took note

of it. Later it became a hit film in the west, very few news items appeared. But when ‘SM’ was nominated for the Golden Globe award, a sort of awakening took place. Then it won Golden Globe, Bafta followed and was nominated for the Oscars in 11 categories. Excitement engulfed the nation. Suddenly every medium started talking about the film. This fever reached its high point on the eve of the Oscar night. People were thinking that an Indian film is in the race.

Media is to be blamed for this misconception. First of all Slumdog Millionaire is produced and distributed by British and American companies. It is written and directed by western people. The film is set in India, that too in Mumbai, a prominent city, of India; so shooting takes place in this city. Actors have to be Indians to suit the characters. Again, Dev Patel, lead actor, is British Indian and not from India. This is an

outright Non-Indian film.

‘Mother India’ was the first Indian film to be nominated for the Oscars, that too in the ‘best foreign language film’ category. Nearly four decades later ‘Lagaan’ was nominated. Then ‘Shwaas’ a Marathi-regional language-film got the nomination for the same category. For years together India is sending films to Oscars but that is just an official entry, and not nomination. Slumdog Millionaire was treated by all above-mentioned awards as a mainstream film made in UK/USA, they never thought- even for a second- this as an Indian film. Then why this hysterical reaction? Did we forget that many ‘western’ films including David Lean’s ‘Passage to India’ were set in India?

At the core, Slumdog Millionaire is a typical Hindi film. It is a fantasy. A boy living in slums hits jackpot one day, finds his ladylove also. Numerous Indian films have this storyline, with some variation here and there .So what is new about Slumdog Millionaire? The film language, the style of filming and presentation. Danny Boyel has worked all his life in the west, he knows what exactly the audience over there likes. Much has been written on the film, about its technique and so on. Some prominent filmmakers like Adoor Gopalkrishnan have criticised the film, some expressed dissatisfaction over style of filming and fast editing. But that is what impresses western audience. This is the reason one would find contrasting opinions in the reviews written by American or British critics and Indian film critics. Nobody in India found it very good, forget ‘great’.

In USA and UK Slumdog Millionaire was seen by non-Indian viewers in large numbers. It earned its money there. In India response was not very encouraging. The poverty shown in the film is a cinematic novelty for western audience, not for Indians, who have slums as their neighbourhood. Indian spectators turned to the theaters after they heard the Oscar news. But it was not the rush and in the sixth week, occupancy did not improve beyond 19 percent or so (according to trade sources.

Is A.R Rehman’s music for the film really outstanding? I don’t think so, and there are many more who think that way. He has mixed sounds of Indian and Chinese drums, western instruments skillfully before also. He has blended Hindustani and Carnatic styles to great effect in many film songs. The song and score, which earned him golden statuettes, are, new to western ears; ditto goes for the sound mixing. (Pokutty) Sounds emanating from streets and slums of Mumbai are unheard for westerners. How many of them have understood the meaning of ‘Jai ho’, the song written by Gulzar? He has penned many beautiful songs earlier, but they are for Indian listeners. Western audience ‘saw’ and ‘heard’ this song and lapped it up. This should not be mistaken as an honour for Indian music, which is very different from the film’s music.

Oscars won by Rehman, Pokutty and Gulzar are won by Indians, (not to forget Bhanu Athaiya and Satyajit Ray). Others have gone to Britain. Slumdog Millionaire remains a foreign film for India. This film or its success will not change the style of Indian or Hindi films, nor it will create a larger viewer base for Indian cinema abroad. This film is an accident happened to Indian cinema, which is a welcome happening any way.

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