I have watched ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, an Indian story directed by British director Danny Boyle three times now in the US. Each time, the theater was packed, and each time, the film was met with a standing ovation (even at a film market where the room was packed with cynical film buyers).
For years I have nursed a resentment against Bollywood cinema. ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is an English language film with more Hindi in it without sub-titles than in a three-hour Bollywood flick. As films go, it is not a good movie – it is great. Greatness in film making that comes from raw honesty and desire to reveal the truth has been lost in Bollywood. Bollywood films are now a rag-tag collection of song dance sequences with astonishing pelvic shoving and rotating movements by middle aged men and women. The songs are woven together without dialogue and story, by superstars who earn more than Bill Gates, into three-hour obscenities. Bollywood films are no longer about dreams, they are lies about Indian life.
‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is a profoundly moving experience. To Indians living outside India, it is a film that brings great relief. We can now stop lying about India and its lightening progress and prosperity. The film has revealed the truth of Indian life as no other film or documentary has ever been able to do. The drama itself is fictional and at times flimsy, but the frantic camera work set in real Mumbai slums, the direction, and the acting have an honesty about them unseen in Indian cinema or life.
We, the NRIs, no longer need to cling to a false image of India that is on a fictional ride to super-powerdom to feel proud as Indians. We no longer need to close our eyes and shut our minds to the unspeakable levels of poverty, crime and decay in our nation. It is equally a relief for those westerners who have pretended to buy these lies so they do not step on the feelings of us Indians. Now that the truth is out in the open, it has set us free. We can embrace truth and feel good for what we are as Indians and what we have achieved as individuals and a civilization. But we must also truthfully and honestly embrace the naked reality of the deep malaise of the country and how irretrievably many millions of lives are being lost to poverty.
There is no undermining Indian achievement, but the yarn has been spun too thin. India’s status as an economic entity and a global power hangs by this thin yarn and every so often deep troubles are exposed by small failures. In ‘Slumdog…’, the film based on a novel by Indian civil servant Vikas Swaroop, we finally have an image of India that we can embrace and thus, stop pretending about the non-existence of this real India.
There are more Indians living in slums than the entire population of Holland. This is not something that gets said a lot. Indians as a homogeneous prosperous class are only to be found outside India, where their abilities are not constrained. There are also more Indians on world’s rich lists than any other developing country with such enormous poverty. This paradox is explained only by the fact that a lot of wealth we see in the country has been criminally or unconscionably obtained. Sadly, wealth obtained legitimately is criminalised by a corrupt system of such depth and proportions that it has no parallels in human history. The real opportunity and some prosperity have been created by individuals despite the state. Just like the heroes of this film, prosperity comes at a high price to Indians. It requires more than good intention and effort, it needs compromises and pain no one should endure.
The star of the film – Jamal and his brother Salim – are what Indians call serial entrepreneurs. They constantly invent professions and expertise to get by. They represent a billion people of India, where enterprise is the only way to survive. They are all trying to break through or die trying the ring fence of corruption restricting every aspect of economic life. Most urban poor are like Jamal, the ‘Slumdog’, who acquires knowledge through crumbs of overheard conversations and has one in a ten million shot at wealth.
Most Bollywood movies now have one genre – superstars play the ordinary dude playing the superstar who gets the babe in the bikini. Indian cinema had a claim to dreams for many decades. Now it has moved into indefensible territories of make-believe that can only rear corruption in young minds and distract people from a reality they need to fix. But Indian cinema is not the cause of India’s problems. It is just one of the symptoms.
I have no way of knowing how this film will be received in India. I hope that the film will be welcomed and that it will be a cause of celebration and introspection.