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April - May 2009
Slumdog Millionaire: It ís Still a White Manís World!
Slumdog Millionaire is a phenomenon in the history of Indian cinema. Though Indian films have won many awards at the international film festivals held at Cannes, Berlin and Venice – renowned for quality films and considered very prestigious in the film community – the Oscars is the glamour stage of the World cinema. And through this film India got the limelight at the Oscars. AR Rahman, who has been already internationally renowned for his music, along with Gulzar, got two Oscars. And, most importantly, Resul Pookutty got the Oscar for being the Best Sound Engineer in the world. Indian talent at last has been recognised at the most celebrated film award ceremony.
However, the tragedy is that this recognition is just the side-effect of a sheer cultural imperialist project. Slumdog Millionaire is a visualisation of India by a British film director and his British screenplay writer.
The film makers claim that this is a rags-to-riches story depicting a slum boy’s rise from extreme poverty to the height of winning ‘Who Wants to Be A Millionaire’ quiz on Indian television. Some ultra-sensitive people have criticised the film for supposedly exploiting the poverty in India. The director, Danny Boyle, has not denied that the project entails exposing the poverty in the Indian metropolis, usually ignored by the middle classes of India. However, the fact is that the film is nowhere close to describing the poverty in the slums of India, not to talk of offering any analysis of the underlying exploitative socio-economic system. The film doesn’t even pretend to be naturalist or realist. A few shots of Dharavi slums inform the audience nothing about the causes of the poverty there. The film doesn’t blame any other economic or political class directly for the slum-dwellers’ economic plight, except some gangsters and slum people themselves. The quiz host, Prem Kumar, is supposedly from the slums himself, and still he takes the mickey out of Jamal Malik, the protagonist in the film, for being a slum dog. He is jealous of Jamal, and also tries to misguide him by writing a wrong answer to a question on the toilet mirror.
The film is quite clearly busy in carrying out Danny Boyle’s British pre-conceived notion of Indian slum children and their fantasies. Not only does Jamal come out of the wretched slum life without any process of growth, he also grows into a very British boy! He knows whose picture appears on a one-hundred US dollar note, but he doesn’t know whose picture appears on a one-thousand Indian rupee note! To every question of the quiz, Jamal has an associated experience wherein he finds the answer to the question. But the eighteen year old boy who has lived all his life in India has not seen any Indian currency notes which all carry Mahatma Gandhi’s picture! Only a British mind can imagine a character like that. In fact, in the quiz programme that forms the core of the film plot, only three questions are related to India. Among them too, questions such as ‘What does Lord Rama hold in his right hand?’ are unthinkable on a real Indian television programme. Such questions would be too easy for Indians. However, these questions on Indian culture are quite fascinating from the British point of view. And, hence they occupy prominent position in the quiz in the film. Otherwise, most of the questions asked in the quiz fit in British television rather than an Indian television programme. In Danny Boyle’s vision, rags-to-riches story includes speaking in English with a British accent and having the knowledge of the world as an average Brit would have. Jamal does know that there is an Oxford Circus in London! And like smart contestants on British television shows, Jamal also guesses that a Cambridge Circus could also be in London!
All in all, it’s a very superficial look at the life of slum children in Mumbai/India. Those who think that the film describes the poverty of Indian slums should actually see Rabindra Dharmaraj’s Chakra (1981) or Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988) and experience the difference. Despite India emerging at “the centre of the world”, as Jamal’s elder brother Salim puts it, there is still no change in the life of Mumbai’s street children. In Salaam Bombay! also the protagonist is a tea-boy. However, Mira Nair’s Chaipau is far more authentic to Danny Boyle’s tea-boy. The film critics and film scholars were unanimous in commending Salaam Bombay! for its naturalist portrayal of street children’s life in the metropolis. John Pym wrote in Monthly Film Bulletin: “Salaam Bombay! Spreads before the audience a tapestry of Bombay low life seen chiefly through the eyes of Krishna (the lead character) and his fellow urchins” (Pym, 1989, p.43). Films and Filming commented: “With Salaam Bombay! Mira Nair takes Indian cinema into the docu-drama realm of Bobenco’s Pixote” (Stanbrook, 1989, p.14)
As it does on the issue of poverty, the film presents a shallow look at the social conflicts in India. The depiction of riots in the film is representative of the typical British mind-set that believes that in the perennial and sole religio-political conflict in India, Hindus are the attackers and Muslims are the victims – straight and simple. Actually, the British believe that they are the only nation in the world that treats its minorities in a fair way. All other nations, whether Russia or France, treat their minorities badly, and India tops the list of such nations! The British foreign secretary (foreign minister) David Miliband’s comments during his recent visit to South Asia, blaming India for not resolving the Kashmir dispute, and thus for not treating its Kashmiri Muslims fairly, are no aberration. Danny Boyle’s film represents the same view. That’s why even to a boringly easy question relating to the bow of Ram (whose posters from a con-current television programme called Ramayan can be seen all over Mumbai, in the film), Jamal had to find an associated experience in his life and say that his mother died because of Ram! There can’t be a better example of shallowness than this.
The film is neither naturalist nor realist. On the other hand, the film makers claim it to be a fantasy, a romance, a comedy, a drama, a crime, and a musical – all genres put together. In short, it is a usual Mumbai masala (formula) film, which Western cine goers call “Bollywood rubbish” where everything is unreal. And the fact is that Bollywood is far better in making “rubbish” films. There have been hundreds and hundreds of Hindi commercial films such as Eeshwar, Mawali and Deewar – far better than Slumdog Millionaire – falling in this category. As the serious journalists of the Guardian and the Financial Times cannot compete with the Sun (British newspapers) in finding Page 3 girls, it is very difficult to beat Indian film makers in the “rubbish” genre. Danny Boyle just proves the point.
The problem is not why Danny Boyle has made such a film. Everyone has the right to make good or bad films. The problem is that had an Indian film maker made Slumdog Millionaire, no one in the West would have even bothered to have a look at the film. If anyone by mistake had seen it, they would have dubbed it as the usual highly exaggerated fantasy coming from India. The Indian authorities wouldn’t have even dreamed of sending it for the Oscars. But because this film is made by a White, suddenly a crap is being passed on as a masterpiece. The film got nominated for and has won Bafta and Oscar awards for being the Best Picture! Far better Indian films are not even looked at, at these ceremonies. The Indian entry for an Oscar this year Taare Zamin Par – a far better film than Slumdog Millionaire – couldn’t even get a nomination for the awards! When it comes to India, the only film maker who got a symbolic recognition at the Oscars was Satyajit Ray. However there have been several other Indian directors like Shyam Benegal, Sai Paranjpe, Govind Nihalani, Ritwik Ghatak, Ketan Mehta and Mrinal Sen who have produced world class cinema – well recognised by Eastern and Western film scholars. But they got no recognition at the Oscars. It just goes to show that the Oscars is still a White Man’s world!
The most shameful thing is that the Indian television channels, particularly the English language channels, have been praising the film and taking pride in this. Denied of any awards for Indian films at the Oscars, many Indian television anchors were wishing this film to succeed there – without even seeing the film. Their feeling has been that if this film wins at the Oscars it would be a win for India. And so they have been clinging to this film as their own, without realising that it’s a British project with its usual prejudices.
This film’s win at the Oscars, particularly the awards for the Best Picture and the Best Director, at best reflects the ignorance at the Academy organizing the ceremony, and at worst it represents the poverty of world cinema than the poverty of Mumbai slums. I personally believe the world cinema hasn’t reached such lows.
The issue for India is whether it should celebrate the Indian success associated with Slumdog Millionaire, or should Indians be reflecting on the cultural imperialism exemplified by this film.