Sunday, March 08, 2009

Slumdog India

I have finally seen Slumdog Millionaire as I am back to my movie times, long intercontinental flights. As I write this sitting in my favourite writing place, in the lounge at Dubai Airport, in the middle of the night, I must be honest in stating that parts of the movie was too graphic and painful to watch for me, and hence I skipped parts by channel switching between this beautiful movie and almost meaningless Quantum of Solace.

But let me talk about Slumdog Millionaire. This is every bit as good as its Academy Awards [and other] honours suggest. Brilliant script and editing, some stellar performances, great music etc have already been mentioned in many other places. Dev Patel and Frieda Pinto surely are outstanding new faces and I am sure we will see more of them in the coming years. Irrfan Khan is very special, and he does a great cameo; so does Anil Kapoor. But I am no movie critic and will not pretend as one. I would rather return to my favourite subject - modern India.

The star of this movie is India. The indomitable spirit of it, which rises above the insults and inconveniences heaped on it, through a combination of human spirit and intelligence. The movie reminded me of the great success story of the last year - White Tiger by Arvind Adiga - which portrays the journey of another 'village dog' to criminality and stardom.

Undeniably, the story has a ring of truth, a realism, in it. It sounds and feels real. The slums are very real and every Indian have seen them. The begging, the hustle, the human trafficking - all seem real. It portrays the blood and sweat and filth of our great city, Mumbai. It shows our glitz and glamour, and our self-obsessedness, in plenty. A particularly poignant moment comes when Jamal does not trust the hint that the self-obsessed presenter, Prem, was passing on: street kids live their daily life not trusting the English-speaking self-obsessed kinds Prem represent. In a way, this movie sounds like Oliver Twist in most parts - telling the story of the journey of an innocent boy in an unkind world - but, notably, without any traces of Victorian generosity; such things are rare in today's cut-throat, frentic India.

Slumdog Millionaire, almost unbelievably, is a love story. It is an usual boy-finds-his-girl story, set in modern India. It ends with the script - D: It is Written - referring to destiny. But it is the same journey which the whole country is taking every day, pushing on in the middle of unbelievable obstacles to achieve what it must achieve.

Now that I have seen the movie, I am even more curious why it was so criticized. I am sure realism makes a lot of people in India feel uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable, I must add, so that many demanded the movie should be banned in India and Government should do something to stop its screening abroad. There were big names in this 'slam the slumdog' brigade. I have particularly noted the objections from Arindam Chowdhury, the education billionaire in India with forays in politics, movies and publishing. The problematic point is that Mr. Chowdhury is in a position to influence a lot of young managers in India, as he owns and runs a chain of management colleges in India. His view was that the movie glorifies poverty and undermines India. I saw just the opposite - a glorification of Indian Spirit and how poverty does not destroy one person's self-belief - and thought he must not have seen the movie.

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