Monday, February 9, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire: Art or Sell out?

V.S.Naipaul's first book on India, "An area of darkness" was a withering criticism of the country, practically scalding to a country that was barely 20 years old since it became free. Naipaul followed it with an even more scathing "India: A wounded civilization", he blamed everything that gets labeled "Indian ethos" as root of its rot, his last book, in 1990, "India a million mutinies now" retained the carping but went easy on the bile. By now he had a reputation of selling India's poverty. He joined the ranks of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen et al. Ray, especially, was accused of selling India's poverty in the guise of art. Katherine Mayo's book "Mother India" published in the early 30's evoked an angry response from none less than the Mahatma who decried it as "a drain inspector's report". That we had a drain was of no consequence.

Gandhi's indignence could be excused as one who was defending the honor of a country held in slavery for 300 years by the very race of the author. Breaking its chains until recent times India and its citizenry, while not ashamed of the ill's of the society, would be very hurt to see such portrayals, especially on screen, it gets further amplified when such portrayals get awards. The reactions were always "well we are a huge country, who does not have it, is America any better, why show only these,...."

Since America is often dragged into such comparisons lets look at Hollywood. Yes we have our own bromides of super heroes, comic capers, kid movies, chick flicks etc but come Oscar season a steady stream of serious cinema hits the halls. Movies like "crash" that unflinchingly look at race relations in suburbian L.A., movies like "Monster's Ball" that open old racial wounds, all hit our collective conscious. Note that in these movies the issues are not sugar coated but presented in raw reality, all racially offensive words find mention to bring reality to face.

Reading Aravind Adiga's "White Tiger" I too thought is that all there is to India. But who am I to deny that that too is a part of India. What a creator chooses to portray is his/her own freedom. Whether that freedom has been used with intellectual integrity is all that we can judge.

In this new found "irrational exuberance" the marginalised sections of the society have all but vanished from mainstream discourse. We are now obsessed with Ambani's rank shifting on Forbes list of billionaires, elections are "too close to call", markets are falling on "global cues", "profit taking", many times I wonder how Indian journalese (thats what it is) has comfortably adopted American-speak. In my 26 years in India I've never heard an election prediction phrased as "too close to call", a characteristic CNN phrase.

When a movie like "Slumdog" rubs it in many react with indignation but with absolutely no qualms of conscience about the issue of inequality itself. Yes America had its Katrina, but hurricane Ike was a non-event. Yes America had 9-11 but nothing since. Yes America had a Rodney King case of race brutality, we just elected an Afro American president. Are we ashamed that India's dirty linen was washed in public, was the washing the sin or that our linen was dirty in the first place.

Time magazine did a wonderful story on the picture and hit home on who dislikes it and why:

"You can't live in Mumbai without seeing children begging at traffic lights and passing by slums on your way to work," says Shikha Goyal, a public relations executive who left halfway through the film. "But I don't want to be reminded of that on a Saturday evening." There's also a sense of injured national pride, especially for a lot of well-heeled metro dwellers, who say the film peddles "poverty porn" and "slum voyeurism."........
........This message of hope is something many among India's lower middle class seem to have taken to heart. "The film only shows what is real," says Rakesh Nair, a driver in New Delhi. "It's those who are making lots of money who are cribbing about the film showing the dark side of India. Those left behind are loving it because they can empathize with the film's hero."

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