Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Truths and Myths of Slumdog

Never in my living days have I seen such interest in a movie based in India. The hype is unbelievable and it would not surprise me if it nabbed the Oscar for Best Director, besides the mostly certain nod for A.R.Rehman for his brilliant musical score. But has it really rung the right bells, tickled the right feathers, fluffed the right pillows with the messages it has sent out?

It's been a month now since I saw the movie. All the blurry images and the exciting sequences should have faded, and what's left must be indelible enough for a trustworthy review of this question. I watched this movie in New Jersey with a fairly dominant Caucasian crowd, and a few Indians (besides my relatives) seated in the last few rows. The "white folk" waited until the credits rolled to a close - each one of them - and applauded to no one in particular. The "desis" sneaked out before the lights turned on, clearly embarrassed by what had been depicted!

Separating The Grain From The Chaff

  • All Indians are fluent English speakers, albeit with an accent! - Myth. The movie was made for the Western audience. Clearly an overdose of sub-titles would have ruined the experience.

  • Primary schools run by the government primarily teach Classic English literature including The Three Musketeers. Myth. Primary government-run schools are lucky to have regular attendance from teachers, let alone students, and Three Musketeers is not a staple of the curriculum. Another of those facets palatable to a Western theme.

  • Slum-dwellers practice open defecation. Truth. Sadly, most of them do not even have the odd door to hide them from public view.

  • People stop what they are doing to watch "Who wants to be a millionaire". Truth. The Indian version of WWTBM actually reported the highest TRP ratings ever, as high as an Indo-Pak cricket match, for weeks together.

  • Bad guys grab kids off the street and mutilate them, before putting them to work as beggars. Truth. It is no coincidence that 4 out of 5 child beggars I encountered in Mumbai were either blind or handicapped. The occasional girl also carried a baby "brother" for added sympathy-value.

  • A Mercedes luxury car can be unscrewed apart in a mere matter of minutes. Truth. Oh yeah, that can definitely be done with a team of skilled hands! In some parts of Mumbai, a stolen car is dismantled even before a police report has been filed.

  • A band of Hindu activists attacked pockets of Muslim population with swords. Truth. Of course, there was a tit-for-tat too.

  • Commuters don't give a damn when a bunch of bad guys drag a woman off the trains. Truth. Too often has this proved to be true in a city like Mumbai, where everyone always has something more important to do.

It's All True!

When most of what we saw in the movie was true - and most people who have lived in Mumbai will testify to that - then why are so many Indians raging at this depiction? One reason is that the upwardly mobile and social elite are now shamed because the truth is out about the slums and poverty of the country, which is embedded even in one of the biggest cities of the world like Mumbai. To add to their misery, the direction and cinematography of the movie has been so colourful and fast-paced that it has got people hooked and sold them the story a dime a dozen. The story of the "real" India.

If we keep the hollow pride of these elite aside, one can hear the voices calling for moderation, for the complete picture. Although the movie only hinted at the glowing side of a progressive nation, the focus clearly was on the poverty, and the indomitable spirit of a slum child to rise above it.

The Whole Is The Sum Of The Parts?

No one can blame these critics either. The West has always loved its cliches. 20 years ago, India was a nation of moustachioed snake charmers, "turbanised" rope tricksters and beggars. Today, it is the nation of back-office tech geeks, call center operators and beggars. The Western media has been awash with stories of the roaring Indian Tiger and the fiery Chinese Dragon. I have had numerous personal experiences of the latent exasperation in Strangeland that boils up at success stories from South Asia. In a way, stories of poverty, true as they may be, gives them a much vaunted sense of vindication, that finally their suspicions and doubts have found a base to latch on to. No wonder then that the book of the year (Arvind Adiga's Booker prize winner The White Tiger) and most likely the movie of the year, had poverty and deprivation in India as their central theme.

To the world - Do realise that no single movie can show you the complete picture. More than half of India's populace is poverty-stricken, but not everyone is miserable. Nor is every other person in tech-support. It is a country of financial extremes, visible both in big cities and the remotest villages. You have to see it to understand it!

To fellow Indians - Stop caring what the world thinks anymore. That was Mahatma Gandhi's way too. Let our actions speak for themselves. If this leads to a little complacency from the rest of the world, that wouldn't hurt now, would it?