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AB and Slumdog

January 22, 2009

Reading with some amusement Nirpal’ blog in the Guardian where he blasts Amitabh for his disparaging remarks of Slumdog Millionaire. Now AB’s blog which gives me unaccountable pleasure on cold lonely days, says “If SM projects India as Third World dirty under belly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky under belly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations. Its just that the SM idea authored by an Indian and conceived and cinematically put together by a Westerner, gets creative Globe recognition. The other would perhaps not.”

Nirpal goes on to argue how the Big B is a fool “Bachchan gave one of the worst English-language performances in cinematic history with his embarrassingly stupid portrayal of an ageing thespian in The Last Lear. Having failed miserably at cultivating a western audience, it must hurt him to be so monumentally upstaged by white folk on his home turf.” and how Boyle did something Bollywood refuses to do – showcase the marginalized and poor in India. He goes further and says that in fact Slumdog could only have been made by a Westerner.” Many angry comments follow and much fun is had.

While Nirpal’s post is unnecessarily vitriolic I am not so quick to jump on the patriotic bandwagon and smack him for his thoughts. However, I don’t sympathise with him either because these angry knee-jerk reactions are exactly what he intended with his article (otherwise which Indian in their right mind would openly call the Big B “no-talent”.  I say it sometimes too, but in my mind and then too, softly).

He is way off with his assertion that only a Westerner can make such a film. If he says that from a capital, exposure and distribution perspective, I’d agree. Even the Lagaans of the world could not command the publicity and distribution of a Hollywood film, so that’s just a numbers thing. But in terms of sensibility we have enough filmmakers who can rise to the task and already have.

The irony of the angry comments to this blog post is that they self-righteously throw out names such as Mira Nair, Satyajit Ray and Benegal – precisely those who don’t belong in Bollywood and have never found a ready market in India. In that, the commentators themselves are admitting that mainstream Bollywood has never taken the initiative to make enough films about the poor of India (I am not talking about the ad hoc exception to the rule). Bachchan calling this the “lower under-belly of India” is so ludicrous and pretentious that I have to believe he has either not seen or misunderstood the movie. The slums, lack of sanitation, education, drinking water and opportunity are mainstream. If they are a minuscule and inconsequential part of Bachchan’s world then that is his privileged life. I see it every day, when I get accosted at the airport by a starving child’s grubby hands, when my car stereo gets stolen by teenagers from the nearby slum, when we get a power cut because 70%of Dharavi uses theirs illegally without meters. I am not one of them, but they’re enough a part of me that I don’t romanticize the poor.

Similarly, I didn’t find Boyle’s treatment of the slums romantic either. I have nothing against Jaane Tu or Rock On (loved both) the way the author does but I agree that poverty is not a mainstream subject in middle and upper class India. It is not a box office draw and thus untouched by Bollywood.

I am not given to the Shabana Azmi brand of indignation where she smarts every time she sees a photo of a slum in a Western newspaper. Yes it is a stereotype and tiresome. But right now, I am also tired of the “India Shining” stereotype and don’t think a film highlighting the poor is a personal slight. I don’t have any delusions of being some sort of ambassador for India where I will be judged based on every latest movie or book that comes out of my country. That is the prerogative of celebrities such as Mr. Bachchan who no doubt believes that every time he goes abroad he must be embarrassed for the slums back home. He would rather talk about his flamboyant Black as SRK would about Devdas, I’m sure. MTV has done as much to stereotype the West as Nat Geo has done to stereotype the developing world.

Slumdog, ultimately, is a movie. A slum boy defies fate and Mumbai works both with and against him to prop him to a level where he wins crores. Why should I be ashamed of this fantastical but not atypical plot? Because it shows the slum boy in actual slums? Because it doesn’t make the underworld look cool like RGV does? As a movie, it delivers.

I fully agree with the potshots taken on Boyle about why the slum kids speak English or why he had to have a gratuitous choreographed number at the end of the movie (while insisting this wasn’t a Bollywood film). I am not hailing Boyle as the messiah who showed us something we didn’t know. But I also cannot be embarrassed or upset about the portrayal of a reality in India just because it’s by a Westerner. I have it in me to be embarrassed and upset about the poverty with or without Boyle and I wish Amitabh Bachchan did as well.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. January 22, 2009 7:23 pm

    “The slums, lack of sanitation, education, drinking water and opportunity are mainstream. If they are a minuscule and inconsequential part of Bachchan’s world then that is his privileged life.”

    True to the core…Great write- up!

    But I do have to agree with Mr. Bachchan when he says that the movies highlighting decay and poverty in the third world goes on to win awards, like say, Deepa Sahi’s Water, which depicted the pitiable condition of widows. Of course, the movie was close to the truth but women were treated bad in the west too, in the victorian times, and we don’t often get to see that. The very idea of wearing corsets, for example, is always depicted in the light of elegance.

    Oh yuck, I hated Water and yes you are right. I think those types of films are more aggravating because even though you and I know these practices are 100 years old (or maybe exists currently in some pockets), for the uninitiated foreginer it becomes the sweeping view of India.

    However, Slumdog IS Mumbai in 2009. I took a walk through Dharavi 3 weeks ago and it’s how it is. He didn’t go plant the sewage there 🙂 And then later in the movie, Mumbai is shown as a fast-paced global city as well so SM allows for some nuances and didn’t make me cringe or feel insulted in any way. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. January 22, 2009 7:34 pm

    Hello! I read your previous post and for some reason (“so before saying the final adieu”) I assumed you were moving.

    Like your writing, clean and crisp, my cuppa. 🙂

    Hi yes that was confusing, sorry – the posts before tha one were imported from an old blog and URL that I was saying goodbye to.
    Have you seen the movie? Curious to know other Indian’s thoughts.

  3. January 22, 2009 10:02 pm

    I haven’t yet watched SM but did read Nirpal and AB … but that doesn’t give me enough information to have an opinion on this particular matter …

    but I don’t like AB and his pseudo-humility-and-patriotic act. it’s just too saccharine for my taste and i can’t believe a word that he writes or speaks. perhaps i am biased against him. 🙂

    good writing though.

    Please watch and let me know your thoughts. Yes AB is one of those who thinks Karan Johar is a great person because “he always touches my feet when he sees me”. Everything is symbolic in his world so some reality probably hurts! Thanks for stopping by:)

  4. January 23, 2009 2:06 am

    The husband and I are going to go this weekend. Debating between Slumdog and The Wrestler. Will tell you next week which one we graced with our presence. 🙂

    About Water: White Rainbow was another movie that came out around the same time about the city of Mathura and how the practice of ostracizing widows is alive and well. They are not merely age-old practices.

    I vote Slumdog. I thought the Wrestler was great but a tough watch. So if you’re looking for some fun too 🙂 Thanks for the link, will check it out.

  5. January 23, 2009 4:59 am

    i think we should start ignoring Nirpal. He’s just an annoying wannabe. Who once tried to.. errr… shall mail and tell you…

    Hi welcome Beanie ki ma…email me but I think I know what you are talking about and his posts on Bollywood-bashing. I’m totally sure he frames his headlines to be controversial to get attention but I also don’t think his comment about Bollywood’s angst against Slumdog is totally hokey. What meaningful, representative cinema has AB been making lately that he’s on his high horse! Slumdog showed me my city in a way that kept me engaged through the movie and even through the eyes of a foreigner, it felt authentic. Meanwhile, Salman Khan dances with gori girls in the Swiss Alps 🙂

  6. January 23, 2009 6:40 am

    I loved Water. The director made it amply clear that it was a 60 year old story – visually and through the story line. And I’ve seen my share of head-shaven widows, treated as untouchables by family (this happened in my lifetime) to know that it may not be as severe, but it does still exsist.
    When an idea is given form, don’t we often choose an idea that moves us most, and that, as creators or definers of that idea, we’re allowed the exaggerations to it that appealed to us, that moved our hearts and set our souls racing. Some call it creative license, I just feel it’s your canvas and if you want to make the sun blue, so be it. I doubt very much that a good and honest filmmaker begins to make a movie thinking it will be a representative for a collective identity. And the ones who set out with that idea in mind, Kalpana Lajmi for example, are very clear about it.
    That’s why I am forever at a loss of words when it comes to whether a particular movie can represent this brilliant and million-pieced country of mine. Whether in a good way or bad.
    Ofcourse that’s not the way mass psyche works. Most of us in India think the US is all about working women, strained relationships, delis with kind waitresses and gun-totting men. That’s the movies we have seen and that’s the impression we get.
    So maybe it’s a good thing there’s Bollywood on one side and Slumdog Millionaire on the other. Both of it is us. Equally and as fleetingly.
    I haven’t seen the movie yet, but will tell you if I feel the same once I’ve.
    And as for Bachchan’s ivory tower syndrome, I believe that’s why the quote: ‘patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’
    When you have no ideas of your own to build upon or to fight for, you fight for an abstract.

    Hi you – That was so well put and you’re right – I don’t at all want honest artists to stop making certain movies because they will offend such-and-such sect or feed a stereotype. In that I would then be denying Deepa Mehta the right that I am so generously granting Danny Boyle.Yes, she clearly noted the time period. And yes these things do still happen. I guess here we have our own viewing experiences to fall back on. I saw Water as a movie made for a Western audience (nothing wrong with that) that glossed over some of that context (something about the quotes from Manu made me squirm; made it seem that these scriptures are not open to interpretation and/or that modern India has not questioned these practices). Secondly, I saw it in the US along with a Western audience whose reactions did not still well with me – a feeling I know not everyone can or needs to relate to. And lastly, it was too much of “pretty” film for me to be comfortable with it. Terrible actors and acting (John Abraham and Lisa Ray were poor choices in my opinion although Seema Biswas was good) that made me feel like she wanted to tell the story but keep it somewhat superficial. In some ways if it were uglier, grittier it might have been a harder watch but I would’ve felt that she wanted to dive deep enough into it. I have to admit I was looking forward to the original Shabana Azmi, Nandita Das cast and was disappointed by the change. Of course she had to deal with the crazy fundamentalists so this might have been unavoidable.
    Slumdog is awkward to begin with because the English parts are jarring (what urchin speaks British English). But beyond that I didn’t feel like the movie was nuanced in any way for a certain person or diaspora – again, nothing wrong with that but when you are conscious of it, it distracts from the movie. Phew, pls watch the movie. I am afraid I might be ALONE in this – the horror!

  7. January 27, 2009 5:46 pm

    Hmm, still have to watch the movie but I found Bachchan’s comments extremely immature. He really does live in some sort of glass bubble. And yes, I found Water difficult because of the prettified Varanasi (Sri Lanka? Where were the hordes of people on the banks?) and the non-actors.

  8. February 16, 2009 5:07 am

    Hi, nice post. I agree with you and had blogged about it a while ago myself.

    I was disappointed by Water and the casting of John and Lisa seemed like a desperate attempt at drawing in crowds. (An art house version of the item song?).

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