I chose a Saturday evening to watch this historic film that won India its biggest-ever international film award. I decided to watch Slumdog Millionaire because like any normal Indian, I got excited over the international award. A Guru Dutt, Shyam Benegal, a Sanjay Leela Bhansali or Madhur Bhandarkar never won an international award of this repute; by that standard Slumdog and A.R. Rehman represent the best of Indian cinema.
The film begins in a police torture room in Mumbai. Its central character is young Jamal Malik, who wins Rs. 20 million in a TV show called ‘who wants to be a millionaire.’ I felt sure it was a realist or art movie of the genre popular in the 1980s and 1990s. Certainly it was different from routine commercial potboilers. But as the film progressed, I became confused, hurt and angry.
26 November 2008 and Slumdog Millionaire are the two most recent events that have put Mumbai on the map of world consciousness. There are striking similarities between both.
Ajmal Kasab grabbed the limelight when captured on CCTV, walking through parked trains at Chhatrapati Shivaji Railway Terminal, shooting innocents. Slumdog hero Jamal Malik, by coincidence, is seen in the last shot at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminal, passing through one parked train after another to reach girlfriend Latika.
Were Ajmal Kasab to see Slumdog, he would feel vindicated about his Mumbai killing spree. All propaganda elements used to lure Muslim youth towards terrorism are strangely present in the film. A riot by Hindus and exploitation by the rich and famous create hurdles in the way of Slumdog’s young hero.
Both events have conned the Indian people and left them to their fate. After 26 November, a false assumption that the world supports India in the war on terror has reassured the Indian people. After Slumdog’s Golden Globe, Indians similarly feel that world have recognized Indian creativity. Few understand the poor light in which Indian culture and poverty have been projected, and India denuded of self-respect.
The backdrop is Dharavi, Asia’ largest slum, its street urchins, crime, abused and exploited children and child beggars, not to mention the ubiquitous underworld, its signature tune.
Unlike Mr. Rahul Gandhi who selectively tours poor homes and spends the night at villages talking to rural Kalavatis to learn the problems of the poor, the rest of India is already acquainted with the worst problems and exploitations of these slums. We are aware of the deprivation and absence of basic human rights in the slums.
But we also know that these slums are home to millions of dignified people fighting poverty, working hard and breaking through into the outside world. The slums are places of enterprise, small scale industry and innovative business that keep millions of families going. They have wonderful volunteers and social workers who may not be as richly funded as Mother Teresa, but provide genuine health care, education and opportunities. We are winning the war against misery and poverty because we keep hope alive.
Slumdog’s focus on the slums and the exploitation is unduly harsh and hopeless, missing the dignity of the poor and the checks and balances of Indian culture. The script seems to cater to a particular international mindset; hence the sinister plot to murder Mumbai a la 26 November. Danny Boyle shows us a very hellish Mumbai and does no justice to the unconquerable spirit of Mumbai.
Anil Kapoor, as host of the game show ‘who wants to be a millionaire,’ lampoons Jamal Malik for being a tea-boy (chaiwala) in a call center in India. This is totally alien to Indian culture; yet the game host is made to frequently humiliate the poor hero and mock his poverty with a venomous edge. It made me distinctly uneasy.
Indians are actually used to appreciating people rising from the ranks of the weak or under- privileged. Slumdog denied Indian society this credit, and in fact paints Indians as intolerant and anti-poor. An alien attitude, compatible to a Western audience, is projected upon India, to win accolades for a British director (though it is true that Rehman won the Golden Globe for his musical score).
Some of the prejudice is upfront. Jamal Malik ascends the ladder of the game show. One question (Rs. 16,000/- prize money) is: What is in the right hand of the epic hero Lord Rama? The answer should be obvious. But our hero goes into flashback – he sees a mob of bloodthirsty men with saffron headbands running behind skull-capped men running for cover! The hero's mother is burned to death in this mob. Escaping somehow from this riot (the allusion to Gujarat is obvious), the hero sees a vision of Lord Rams with an arrow in his right hand; hence the right answer; hence Rs. 16,000! (Actually, every child in India, regardless of faith, would have witnessed the mohalla Rama-lilas annually, and not need a vision – or hallucination in the midst of a riot – to know the answer to this one).
It is scenes such as this that feed the jihadi quest for justifications for their blind hatred and violence. The Mumbai killer, Ajmal Amir Kasab, would readily associate with this scene, regardless of its relationship with a more complex reality, Godhra, for instance, which was not preceded by any such event.
Later, to win Rs. 2.5 lakhs, Anil Kapoor asks: who was the poet who penned the bhajan “Darshan do Ghanshyam?” Cut to another flashback. This time a gang is kidnapping slum children and making beggars of them. It teaches the kids to sing “Darshan do Ghanshyam,” blinds them, and makes forces them into beggary. Again, the hero escapes and gives the right answer - Surdas.
True, there are such gangs in India. But the use (read misuse) of the sacred names of Sri Rama and Ghanshyam to portray the immense pain and suffering of the hero – a man with a visibly different faith - is hardly justified. The scenes are provocative and unnecessarily suggestive of a larger agenda; there was simply no artistic or creative need for this in the script.
Escaping the gangster, our hero jumps into a running train and manages to reach the Taj Mahal. This is equated with arrival in heaven. In backdrop of the Taj Mahal, children are shown earning huge sums of money – actually the big dollar tips that generous White tourists mythically shower upon India’s poor. In one incident, our child-hero is beaten by the Indian (naturally) driver of a White American tourist. He weeps – “this is real India,” and immediately his saviour peels off a US $ 10 bill, with the mantra: “this is real America, son.” (In real life, as the police in any Indian state will tell, paedophiles are made out of this Good Samaritan stuff; only Hollywood doesn’t know it).
The show’s host by now becomes jealous of this slum-dog, who is on his way to win Rs. 10 million. He tries to trick Jamal into giving an incorrect reply, but our smart cookie manages to win. In a fit of irrational hatred towards this slum-dog, the host then calls the Police to get the hero arrested for fraud. But our Hero manages to win his freedom and comes back to claim his Rs. 20 million.
Is this how American TV shows like “who wants to be a millionaire,” “American Idol” or “Big Brother” are designed? Do producers and hosts fix the winners, and is that why the host of Slumdog could not stand a non-entity winning?
Muslim youth across the border and in India already use incidents like the Gujarat riots to claim lack of opportunities and discrimination by Hindus. This film provides ‘reasons’ to justify their prejudice. The Censor Board has of course, been sleeping on the job, no doubt over-awed by the Hollywood biggies.
Nowhere does the film showcase the tradition and modernity of a unique country where the two do not clash, as in many other societies. It prefers a slanted stress on poverty and exploitation, robbing in the process the dignity and commitment of poor Indians who are heroes in the real sense of the word.
Slumdog has a sinister agenda; it is tailored to the prejudices of a western audience, to reinforce bias about India and particularly the so-called plight of its Muslim citizens. Hollywood should now turn the camera towards the joys of Muslims experiencing democracy (sic) in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other parts of the Muslim world.
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