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Slumdog with a script

Last update - Thursday, February 19, 2009, 02:22 By Priya Rajsekar

It’s a hit at the box office, but emigrant Indians are among Slumdog Millionaire’s most vocal critics. PRIYA RAJSEKAR gives her take on a film that’s dividing opinion both at home and abroad.

Slumdog Millionaire has adapted the Third World misery theme to perfection; à la Aesop’s fable, it showcases the human spirit’s victory over materialistic gains and is a perfectly-timed message in the current economic climate. And for its troubles, it’s set to bag a host of awards.
However, a sense of injury is resonating among Indians, a feeling that the country and its people are left footing the bill for a British filmmaker’s ambitions and the world’s need for a moral science lesson.
For Indians, the film brings several emotions simultaneously to the fore – pride, guilt, shame, remorse, and empathy. Those who have seen their country’s dirty linen washed on global silver screens will know the feeling. Time and again, movies like Salaam Bombay and the Earth, Fire and Water trilogy have done this to India, and while the moviemakers get international acclaim, India’s international image drops several notches, an unsolicited PR exercise in defamation.
Many Indians have gone as far as to suggest that Slumdog Millionaire exploits India’s poor just as much as the villains in the story do.
For starters, the script is adapted from a novel by Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, who named his protagonist secularly as Ram Mohammed Thomas – a name strategically changed in the film to Jamal Malik, an undeniably Muslim name. The repercussions of this seemingly minor alteration can be felt as a palpable reminder of communal hatred and tensions in the country. Then there is the added insult of the use of the term ‘slumdog’ – one blogger I was following wanted to know why the British are unable to stop latching onto the slum-India association.
Unfortunately, a movie is not just a story, particularly one that features graphic portrayals such as those in Slumdog Millionaire, with its enduring images of poverty and abuse. As impressions go, people who are not fully acquainted with India will know the country through these negative images alone.
After a bit of soul-searching, most Indians opine that while much of the movie is truthful, it is hardly the whole truth and nothing but. The movie might bring out the positive Indian spirit, but in its attempt to get there, so much is compromised. And while the Indian back in India will forget the initial shock, express his revulsion and move on, the Indian emigrant may suffer a more painful reaction.
The average Indian emigrant probably likes to think that he is no different from his western counterparts on the social scale. Getting there has often been an uphill journey – economically and socially – a re-learning of life skills, a crash course in western cultural propriety.
When the initiation is complete (or as complete as it will ever be) there is sometimes an ironical feeling of having let oneself down, a belief that maybe the journey was not worthwhile and is invariably followed by a rediscovery of one’s roots. That is when the emigrant feels intensely patriotic and rushes out to defend his national image. One can see the manifestation of this online, where the outpourings of resentment over Slumdog Millionaire and The White Tiger (a Booker Prize-winner by Arvind Adiga) abound.
I distinctly remember my chagrin upon reading some of the world opinion on India’s latest space mission, the Chandrayaan I. Many suggested that India should be focusing on alleviating poverty rather than launching spaceships. Of course India needs spaceships. Of course, India needs to put its best foot forward and invite inward investment to take the country ahead. How could anyone even suggest that it was otherwise?
Over the years, hundreds of thousands of Indians have been lifted out of poverty, millions more have gained an education, and many are taking their rightful place in the global arena. From Silicon Valley to Nasa, from Australia to America, Indians have made their mark in every conceivable area, with immigrant Indians among the most enterprising and educated. Would it not be wiser to become self-sufficient rather than portray an image of perennial misery and global financial dependence?
Slumdog Millionaire’s Oscar prospects are very bright and the cash registers at the box office are still ringing. As for the slum-dweller, as he attempts to make his real-life escape from the clutches of poverty and discrimination, he’ll be pushed back again and again because his reputation has preceded him. After all, life does imitate art – though not always with the happy ending.

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