Best Picture? Slumdog Millionaire Sparks Heated Debate Among Indians About Their Country’s Image: News Analysis From FI2W

By Aswini Anburajan, Feet in Two Worlds reporter

It was easier with Gandhi. Now that’s a movie a country and its people can love, wrap their arms around, and shout praise to. Love, peace, and Satyagraha (nonviolent resistance) — they roll off the tongue with an easy lilt that represents the best of what India has to offer.

Not the case with Slumdog Millionaire. There’s the ambiguity. What does it mean? There’s the connotation. The only other compound word that begins with “slum” and easily comes to mind is slumlord. It doesn’t quite inspire you to go out and change the world.

A scene from Slumdog Millionaire

On the surface it appears that India is celebrating the success of Slumdog Millionaire, the unlikely independent, low-budget film that swept the Oscars. Thousands crowded the airport in Mumbai to greet the cast upon their return from the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles. The evening news in the U.S. beamed back images of the film’s youngest stars riding the shoulders of the crowd, their small hands clutching golden statuettes to shouts of “Jai Ho,” the title of A.R. Rahman’s Oscar-winning song from the movie.

But the post-Oscar celebrations and the Western embrace of Slumdog Millionaire mask a heated debate over the movie among Indians around the world.

Listserves for Indian American groups, such as the South Asian Women’s Collective in New York and South Asian Sisters in San Francisco, are brimming with comments about the film and links to blogs written by amateur and professional writers who either praise or condemn the film’s depictions of corruption and poverty. The South Asian Journalist Association (SAJA) has held four webcasts to date to discuss the implications of the movie and the heated controversy it has generated. Rediff.com, the largest Indian news website, has an entire page dedicated to international coverage of Slumdog.

The arguments range from the right to tell the story – India seen at its worst through British eyes doesn’t help the film’s cause – to charges that the film’s producers and British director Danny Boyle exploited the young children in the movie, plucked them from the slums, paid them little and failed to provide additional compensation when the film shot to global prominence.It’s also put the country’s wealthy and new upwardly mobile middle class in an awkward position. The depictions of India’s nouveau riche haven’t been pretty. The New Yorker, in a feature called “Mumbai: Scenes from the Slums,” juxtaposes the story of a thirteen year-old boy growing up in one of Mumbai’s largest slums with the celebrations for Slumdog Millionaire where richly clad Indians toast a movie about the country’s poverty in a posh hotel. The article contends that India’s poor are being pushed out of sight by high fences and barbed wire. A planned skyrail for Mumbail will allow wealthy travelers to literally fly above the slums on their way to and from the city’s international airport.

Even Britain’s Prince Charles found himself in the crossfire of the controversy when he defended the slums as a more viable form of living space for the poor than what he described as the “ faceless slabs of concrete that are still being built around the world to ‘warehouse’ the poor.”

Daravin, the slum portrayed in Slumdog Millionaire, houses 620,000 residents on 520 acres of land. Local residents have consistently fought off attempts by developers who want to demolish the slum and use the land for skyscrapers and luxury condominiums.

That these are the arguments and the facts dominating international headlines about India have many Indians cringing.

T.P. Sreenivasan, writing on the Indian news site Rediff.com, says that some Indians describe the movie as a form of “cinematic terror” against India.

The film is exploitation of the novel, of Dharavi, of poverty, of Rahman, of India itself to titillate foreign audiences. It is the exploitation of the new curiosity about India’s success. The curiosity today is not about maharajas and snake charmers, magic or rope trick, but about the market and the malls, the computers and the cell phones.

The question is whether India is a boom or a bubble. It seeks to reassure the world, as Jamal says to an American tourist couple, when he rolls on the ground after a brutal beating by the police, ‘You want to see the real India? Here it is!’

My own mother had to stop her older sister from walking out of the film. “Chee chee chee,” my aunt had groused, “This is what they want to show in a movie about India.”

Sreenivasan’s son, Sree Sreenivasan, a Dean at the Columbia School of Journalism and founder of the South Asian Journalist Association, defends the film in a post.

The differences between father and son reflect a generational division over what’s an appropriate image of India to give to the world.

As one young Indian woman vents on the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective listserv, “I’ve never been in a country more obsessed about how it is represented abroad than India. There is a TV show I saw there devoted to how the international media was talking about the country.”

Another young woman wrote to me, “I’ve spoken with Indians from India who were embarrassed about the portrayal of abject poverty – why? It’s analogous to the portrayal of the West being a land of isolated, unhappy people. Both are stereotypes but pick up on certain realities.”

As an Indian American I feel as torn about the film as many of my counterparts, unsure of how to weigh the charges of what some are calling “poverty porn” with the validity of showing the true conditions that millions in India live in. It’s as much about who decided to tell the story — a British director with an unsentimental view and an eye for profit — as it is about whether we can celebrate India’s riches and recent success without feeling guilt over not addressing the desperate poverty of millions of its citizens.

A non-Indian friend said to me about the movie, “I thought it was great, but I forgot about it right after I saw it.”

I thought it was awful to watch, and I was haunted by visions of the movie for weeks after seeing it. Despite the fact that I left India when I was four, I feel an affinity to the country and its people, even a slum in Mumbai thousands of miles from where I’m from.

That sense, more than any other, may be the movie’s most significant legacy for Indians. The pull of identity and homeland, even if it’s a generation removed, remains palpable. We, as Indians here in the U.S. or in Europe or back home in India, feel that sense of responsibility and emotional connection whether its one of pride or shame. And it will be Indians who decide whether to use the movie as a catalyst to address the country’s poverty.

Or as the writer Minal Hirjatwala urged readers on her blog, “Don’t just watch. Do something.”

It’s not even close to achieving Satyagraha, but it may be a step in the right direction.

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