Slumdog Millionaire and the Real India

by Krishna on February 22, 2009

mumbai slums It is Oscar time once again. This year’s favorite for the Best Picture of the Year is “Slumdog Millionaire”. Not that it necessarily means anything, but the best prediction expert in baseball and politics, Nate Silver, gives it a 99% chance of winning both Best Director and Best Picture.

Slumdog” is a consummate entertainer, but although set in India, it will feel strange to Indian moviegoers. The typical Bollywood movie, i.e., movies made in Bombay (Mumbai), the film capital of India, is a musical drama/thriller/romance around 3 hours long, dumbed down with simple plots and melodramatic acting. There is nothing subtle about Indian movies: both hero and villain are larger than life and rarely show any complexity of character. The songs are extravagant, shot in exotic foreign locales. Sometimes, you get the feeling that if the typical Indian movie spent a tenth of the money of its songs on the plot, maybe they would be more watchable. (wistful sigh)

In comparison, “Slumdog Millionaire” finishes around the 2‑hour mark and its only song comes during the credits. This is to be expected as the movie is a British production. The Indian elements come from the Cinderella story and from the filming locations in Mumbai, Agra (the location of the Taj Mahal) and innumerable other locations where the Indian Railways go.

Many critics have praised the realistic portrayal of Indian poverty in “Slumdog Millionaire”, but I felt that it was compromised by the “rags-to-riches” plot. The first half of the movie is brutal in depicting the true nature of Mumbai slums, particular the cringe-inducing scenes at the open outhouses and the children blinded for a begging racket. But the movie quickly moves on to more optimistic territory and we quietly forget those horrific scenes.

The movie sends the message of a developing India where slums are being replaced by high-rise apartments. But that is belied by the reality that the movie was actually shot in a real slum in 2008. There are people today who are living in unimaginable conditions of poverty. Not a decade ago, but today. If you walk the streets of Mumbai, you will still see beggars on the streets. The rivers are still polluted and the air is getting more contaminated.

On the bright side, the liberalization of the last two decades has helped bring hundreds of millions of Indians out of poverty and will continue to do so. The problem is that the growth is still slow, not because of freer markets, but because they are not free enough. India lags behind in several indicators of capitalism, such as enforcement of property rights and an efficient judicial system. Corruption is rampant in India, which ranks a sorry 85th in the world in transparency.

India has a long way to go to bring its people completely out of poverty. It has more work to do in reforming its institutions and improving the quality of its political discourse. Optimism is good, but it should not lead to complacency. Both India and China will also have to figure out how to deal with future challenges to their economy, such as global warming, water shortage, and rise of cheap African exports.

Some people closely watching the movie will notice that the protagonist is a Muslim and wonder, “I thought all Indians were Hindus.” Well, actually, India has the 3rd largest Muslim population in the world, almost equal to the number of Muslims in Pakistan. Next time you read the India-Pakistan conflict portrayed as a Hindu-Muslim conflict, think about that. And also the largest Muslim country by population is not Saudi Arabia, but the archipelagic South-East Asian country of Indonesia. Most people who start linking Muslims and terrorists probably don’t realize how few Muslims come from radicalized regions.

The use of the religious element is skin-deep. Example in point: We see religious riots where enraged Hindus raid the Muslim slums killing many innocents while the police stand nearby, doing nothing. Most non-Indians seeing the movie will not probably understand this scene. The history of conflicts between Hindu and Muslim communities is long and complex, dating from the origins of Islam in northern India to the Partition of India. The 1993 riots have much to do with the rise of Hindu nationalist parties in the late 1980’s and the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. A more serious movie on the Mumbai riots is the aptly-named 1995 Tamil movie “Bombay”. None of this is even mentioned in “Slumdog Millionaire”.

The Islamic faith of Jamal, the hero, weakens the movie in one important respect. The host of the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” show in the movie mocks the profession of the hero, who serves tea at a call center. The mocking is not done in private, but publicly on live television with the audience joining in the laughter. This scene would have enormous potency if Jamal was a Hindu who belonged to a lower caste. Like religion, violence due to caste tensions is one of the biggest challenges that India faces today. But the movie sidesteps this issue and instead substitutes an economic conflict which may be meaningful to Western audiences, but ignores the reality of Indian fissures.

A throwaway scene involved Jamal’s brother, Salim, doing a Muslim prayer. What this was intended to mean, I have no clue. But the fact that Salim is a criminal suggests that Muslims are involved in gangster activities in Mumbai, which probably is true, but that could have be mentioned without linking devout Muslims and criminals.

As an artistic work, “Slumdog Millionaire” deserves kudos. As a depiction of the true India, it falls short.

[Photo licensed from superfem]

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