A little more than a year ago,a young,upstart British journalist set out to trash Indian cinema on the basis of a profound question: why do Indian films hardly win Oscar awards despite the country being the most prolific producer of movies in the world? Now that some Hollywood insiders have predicted that Slumdog Millionaire is set to sweep the Academy Awards,it is worth probing the mysterious success of the film (something that has even baffled its own makers) and ask whether the world has,indeed,woken up to the delights of an Indian story in an Indian setting and Indian talent.
Slumdog is good cinema,there can be little disagreement over that. It is a gritty story told in a no-nonsense docu-drama style,and the poverty and pain it portrays is real and undeniable. The rags-to-riches story of Jamal Malik is not,and yet is,one that has been told several times over by Bollywood. The likes of Manmohan Desai,Prakash Mehra and Ramesh Sippy have been there and done that in their own loquacious styles decades ago and what Danny Boyle has done now is to export that in a style that suits Western palates,a la chicken tikka masala.
So what then explains the critical hosannas and the popular appeal of Slumdog across the Western world? Simply put,it is the success of a story set in a clichéd perception of India. This is not just about poverty it could have been eastern mysticism,hysterical religiosity,crime,conflict or corruption,or even global security threats emanating from this part of the world all easily grasped by the West,thanks so selective media coverage of the region.
It continues with the exoticisation of contemporary history,and attempts to look for contrarian economic models. For instance,as Slumdog was introduced to US audiences on popular talk shows as a British film about India no one had heard of,there was much mirth around unanswered tech helpline calls to India,because everyone was celebrating the success of Slumdog at the Golden Globes.
Then came this piece of cake,hardly two weeks ahead of the Oscars. On The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,Boyle earnestly narrated his experience of visiting the slums of Mumbai and how industrious and driven,yet seemingly content the slumdwellers were,just like the characters in his movie. To which Leno could not help but add how they presumably the Americans,the British and the rest of the West had so much more in life but were still not happy. If that took the cake,Prince Charles took the bakery. In a speech at a charity conference in St. Jamess Palace over involving locals in the redesign of slums,the heir to the British throne said that Dharavi,the shanty town featured in Slumdog,offers a better model than Western architecture for ways to house a booming urban population in the developing world. Dharavi,described by The Guardian as a slum where 600,000 people are crammed into 520 acres,could offer pointers for environmentally and socially sustainable settlements for the worlds increasingly urban population,Charles said. The districts use of local materials,its walkable neighbourhoods,and mix of employment and housing add up to an underlying intuitive grammar of design that is totally absent from the faceless slab blocks that are still being built around the world to warehouse the poor,he added,according to the report which was accompanied by a picture of the absolute filth that is Asias largest slum.
Besides being obviously patronising,short-sighted and removed from reality,the underlying thread in these arguments reflects a moral and economic dilemma: should the state take the onus for providing for the poor and the underprivileged and hope to lift them out of their misery a model that hasnt been a huge success in the West or leave them to their own devices to survive and write their Slumdog success stories? It is the same kind of clouded and clichéd perception that causes someone like the British Foreign Secretary David Miliband to visit a cowshed in Uttar Pradesh and harp about Kashmir.Or for some English cricket commentators to lament that the IPL buying Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen for a whopping $1.55 million each may have been a distraction that led to Englands humiliating test defeat in the West Indies. Anything that the subcontinent throws up that does not match with pictures painted at another time,preferably by another outsider,seems to confound much of the West. Boyle and Simon Beaufoy have worked within that framework and have come up trumps. If that does not explain why Indian films hardly win Oscars,nothing will.