AB and Slumdog
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.