The Slumdog Debate
Big B's comments on Slumdog have sparked a debate about the Western media's view of India. The movie actually has everything that symbolises India for the westerners - slums, the Taj, rusty trains, a reference to Bollywood and even a BPO. What more could a westerner want to relate to this story set in modern day India (hence the exclusion of the elephants and the rope trick)? A few of us were discussing the film and its portrayal of India one afternoon and here are our two bits to the debate.
One of the questions that came up was that an Indian director should have come up with the idea of adapting Q & A. Turns out Sriram Raghavan had tried to get the rights, but Vikas Swarup had already sold them. And then the debate moved on to whether an Indian film maker would have given a realistic touch to the slum life. For one, the central character Jamal, would have had to be a tapori, because according to most Indian films, being street smart means being a tapori. Latika, Jamal's love interest would have to be portrayed as more self sacrificing and even weepy to appear as a good girl caught in the murky circumstances. Only then would they have fit into the Bollywood formula no?
But even so, asked someone, does that justify showing India in poor light always? Haven't we studied even in our research subjects how despite progress in most third world countries, the world media likes to focus only on the murky or bizzare facts? But isn't it also true, that for a long time now, neither Indian films nor Indian Television has talked about either the poor or the middle class. If we look at films, its generally a rich Punjabi family, sometimes even NRIs who play the central roles, and on TV the protagonists are from Gujarati, Bengali or Punjabi business families. Not one story about a working man's family or a slum dweller for that matter. No more Nukkad or Wagle ki Duniya or Hrishida anymore. So should we blame a Western director for actually making a film showing an aspect of India we have forgotten? Shouldn't Indian directors also make technically sound movies on such topics?
But then are you and me ready to pay for such a movie? When an Indian director makes an Aamir (shot extensively in Bhendi Bazaar and other so called LS areas of Mumbai) or A Welcome to Sajjanpur (a school text book like portrayal of lovable village characters with references to even Singur), we give them a miss and instead spend hundreds in a multiplex on the latest masala movie. Aren't most movies on serious issues generally considered too academic and enjoyed only by a select audience? So who are we to complain, when we are the ones who give an impetus to the film makers to dish out the same formulaic fare? They give it to us because no matter how much we say we disdain the song and dance routine, fact is we still pay up for it and the producers and distributors know it. In an increasingly consumerist society, the demand for change has to come from the consumer of movies. We cannot wait for the film makers to develop a conscience and make socially relevant movies. So if we do watch the formulaic movies avidly, do we have a right to moan about the quality of Indian cinema?
And then there is the debate about whether we should be so excited about Slumdog winning the Golden Globe. Technically, the only Indian achievement is the award for A R Rahman. Otherwise the whole film is Western. It only uses Indian actors. The treatment is completely western. So technically, we can't lay claim to any of the other awards or the rave reviews, can we?
All the debates aside, Slumdog is a good attempt at a wholesome entertainer with an uplifting rags-to-riches story. The performances and the technical treatment are commendable. And if like Big B we argue that the West has a warped view of Indian films, it is only because India's interesting, experimental cinema is hardly ever sent to the Oscars. TZP is a good film, but did we seriously think it would win, when the West has already seen many movies dealing with more complex portrayals of disabilities?