Fiction, not Fact

Posted on January 24, 2009


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Slumdog Millionaire is an immensely likeable slice of broad entertainment – nothing else. So why are we getting into a lather about whether or not it represents the “real” India?

JAN 25, 2009 – HAD SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE SIMPLY BEEN likened to Rocky, had it simply been christened this year’s artfully crafted feel-good fable (that you feel slightly sheepish about having enjoyed so thoroughly), I doubt the discussions around it would have centered on anything other than its cinematic merits. After all, coming from a nation where few filmmakers actually know anything about making a film, where static compositions and talky scenarios are the de rigueur mode of cinematic expression, isn’t the propulsive kinetic energy of Danny Boyle’s filmmaking its own reward? Isn’t the psychedelic decadence of his images like heroin pumped into the bloodstream? Have the slums of Mumbai ever come alive so, with the bracing electricity of a kitsch-art exhibition?

There’s little doubt that Boyle is a great filmmaker – but why is the world outside insisting that he has made a great film? Slumdog Millionaire is an immensely likeable slice of broad entertainment – and for that we should truly be grateful, especially in this Oscar season, when the corners of cinema screens begin to positively sag with the artistic weight of awards-baiting prestige productions – but why is this winsome trifle being positioned as some transcendent work of moral art? Why is this cheerful amalgamation of clichés about our country –Hindu-Muslim riots, filthy slums filled with filthier beggars, call centres, and, yes, the Taj Mahal, all presented with a theatrical this-is-India flourish – being routinely hailed as a “global masterpiece” layered with rich “social commentary?”

I suspect it’s these wide-eyed generalisations, mostly by the Western media, that are prompting touchy Indians like Amitabh Bachchan to point out, as he did in his blog, that if this film projects India’s dirty underbelly, causing “pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots,” then “a murky underbelly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations.” Indeed, it’s difficult not to wince when a fantastically staged chase along the bylanes of Mumbai is interrupted for a serene second to dwell on a garbage collector filling his bag with refuse, or when our invidious class system (namely, the modern-day caste system) is detailed in loving close-up as an upper-class quizmaster incessantly taunts the lowly chai-wallah competing on the desi version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

We wince because these are realities. If Boyle paints this quizmaster in viler colours than even a loathsome villain who blinds little children and turns them out on the streets as beggars, that’s because the latter makes no effort to fit into decent society whereas the former, an upstanding member of the establishment, does everything in his power to derail the progress of Jamal, the slumdog protagonist. He’s the Shining India representative who wants nothing to do with the other India, the far-from-shining nation of slums and slum-dwellers, and, in a sense, he’s not very different from the critics of this film from our country, who appear upset because Slumdog Millionaire preys on poverty and other such unmentionables that wouldn’t find a place on a Visit India poster.

But my problem with Slumdog Millionaire (taken as a global eye-opener, as opposed to Slumdog Millionaire, the sweet fairy tale) isn’t that these realities are splashed across screens worldwide, thus, apparently, shaming us in the eyes of the Western world. It’s that these “realities” are little more than a colourfully exotic backdrop for an overfamiliar underdog saga. I was, for instance, constantly put off by the inauthenticity of the characters who speak in English – in strange accents that don’t belong in the urban pockets of India, let alone the slums – but I understand that this is a commercial compulsion, born of the need to address the world market. I can, therefore, bring myself to look past such horrific first-person utterances as “I knew I’d find you in the end. It’s our destiny,” or “Shut up. The man with the Colt 45 says: Shut up.”

But if Slumdog Millionaire were truly interested in India as more than just set decoration, why does it have its adorably brown-faced children grow up into fair, model-gorgeous creatures – like “before” and “after” versions in the advertisements for products that feed on our ugly obsession with skin colour? Why not feature a handsomely coffee-coloured hero pursuing a beautifully bronzed heroine? If Slumdog Millionaire is treated as just a fairy tale, this isn’t a nit worth picking – in fact, you could argue that this is part of the film’s fairy-tale agenda, to show that not only can a slumdog become a millionaire, but he can also walk away with a girl in his arms who looks like this – but taken otherwise, its supposedly scathing inquest into all things Indian is merely, well, skin-deep.

Even the infamous “shit scene” is nothing more than the recognition of a great visual opportunity. The structure of the film is that for every question that Jamal is asked on the show, we flash back to an episode in his life that made him wiser with the answer. And so, when he’s asked who the star of Zanjeer is, we go back several years, when, as a little boy, Jamal was defaecating in a public toilet when Amitabh Bachchan’s helicopter descended in the vicinity. Due to certain unfortunate developments, he falls into the cesspit below and ends up slathered with human waste. Undeterred, he picks himself up, races towards his demigod, breaches past the thronging crowds, and extends his arm for an autograph.

If we’d been presented with the reaction of the superstar, upon being confronted with this surreal vision – a little boy, oozing from head to toe with shit – the scene might have meant something. A refusal to sign, perhaps, or a disgusted holler to the cops nearby to eliminate this urchin from his line of sight could have told us something about the distance between the two Indias, one shining, one literally stinking. Even if the point of the scene was to impress upon the child the name of this actor – namely, the answer to the question – there may have been something to it. But Jamal already knows who the actor is – he decides to get the autograph because this is Amitabh Bachchan – and the point of the scene, therefore, is just the coolness of a visual where a little boy is smeared with shit.

In a similar vein, the point of the scene where we flash back to a riot where enraged Hindus converge on hapless Muslims – this time, the patently obvious question Jamal is posed is about what Lord Ram holds in his right hand – is simply the money shot where we hear the grown-up Jamal muse, “If it wasn’t for Ram and Allah, I’d still have a mother.” Is this apparent afterthought – this warm-fuzzy, John Lennonesque imagining of “Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too” – the kind of thing that passes for profound social commentary these days? That’s why the wildly overboard celebration and the equally hysterical condemnation of the film are both mystifying.

Had the conceit of Slumdog Millionaire been that the questions on the game show merely triggered painful memories in Jamal – and that his painful memories are, by extension, ours, the nation’s – the film might have functioned as a look, however glancing, at the real India. But because these flashbacks are meant to hold the specific answers to those questions (which are sometimes treated as nothing less than the mysteries of the universe) – after remembering the riot, for instance, Jamal wishes he didn’t know the answer to that question, as if the contents of Lord Ram’s right hand were otherwise unknowable in a country crammed with Hindus – it’s impossible to treat the film as anything but an elaborately entertaining gimmick.

The problem isn’t one of plausibility, that this slumdog’s life was built around the exact kind of episodes that would, one day, make him a millionaire – because that is the very stuff of fairy tales, whether from the Brothers Grimm or Bollywood. (Even the film’s trajectory is along the lines of happy wish-fulfillment, beginning with ultra-authentic scenes of electro-torture in a police station and ending with the kind of arms-akimbo dance number you’d find in a second-rate Bollywood production that couldn’t afford to hire Prabhu Deva or Vaibhavi Merchant.) The problem is when something this ridiculous begins to be taken as real, as representative of a nation’s reality, as more than a mere movie.

Because a movie movie – a shrewdly constructed artifice that explodes joyously on the big screen – is all that Slumdog Millionaire is meant to be. Let’s embrace the heartbreaking moments such as the one where Jamal and his brother, as children, nod off on top of a train and link their hands in each other’s to keep from plummeting into the countryside hurtling past beneath. Let’s lose ourselves in the long-distance romance, underscored by the exquisite ache of AR Rahman’s love theme. Let’s cheer our throats hoarse at the end, when the impossible is rendered not just possible but inevitable. But let’s not whip ourselves into a lather about it – for a few images of picture-postcard squalour cannot begin to highlight the complex realities of our country.

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