KR Ravi | Feb 06, 2009
Let me start with India.
Amitabh started it all with his blog in which he despaired at the film showing the dark underbelly of India, a tradition that goes back to Satyajit Ray. The star said that in contrast to this ‘poverty porn’ [my words not his] he found much admiration for the Bollywood fare that is often derided as ‘masala’. He writes that crowds throng the cinema halls in many parts of the world where typical Bollywood films are premiered and shown. Hence he took exception to films like Slumdog Millionaire which draw attention to our poverty.
The star’s comments were followed by an avalanche of responses for and against his views. Those who did not agree with him said that poverty was a reality in India and one cannot deny this. Some slum dwellers took exception to being called ‘dogs’.
I have always felt that in order to form a considered opinion there are a few requirements of which the following are critical:
• delay forming opinions till emotions have run their full course
• obtain full facts on the topic
• seek the opinions of all the affected parties.
I did just that and waited for the dust to settle, for sanity to prevail and for the director’s sake I also waited to see what Americans had to say since the Oscars – which many of us are eagerly waiting for – are based in the U.S.
‘Time’ magazine which to some extent reflects American public opinion has a few interesting things to say about the film.
The director Boyle says that the title of the film was not a reference to the canine species at all. It was not a derogatory reference to slum people. It was simply a combination of ‘slum’ and ‘underdog’. Hence came the word ‘slumdog’!
As for poverty American audiences see the story as one of a small guy making it big, of the underdog [again no canine implications] fighting great odds, of the rags to riches phenomena – these are all values dear to and at the heart of the great American dream. Hence the audiences saw their dreams being played by a slum dweller from India. At this time of serious economic crisis the theme struck a chord. It is not that American audiences saw the film like voyeurs to poverty in India, as some have alleged – they know enough about it without having to pay hard earned dollars for it.
Film critics in the U. S have for years expressed dismay that a country as talented as India does not make movies that have a universal appeal. Shockingly countries like Turkey, Iran, and Poland – which we in India do not have in our periphery of consideration, cinematically speaking, have won critical acclaim in the west simply because they dealt with human experiences that anyone can relate to. I believe this is a fair view.
Some of my Indian friends say that audiences in the West must learn to accept Indian films at our terms – meaning that the west must accept the song and dance escapist movies that we make. I ask them why do not the Bollywood audiences accept a Tamil or Malayalam film [with subtitles] at THEIR terms? My understanding is that Bollywood audiences want to see films with a North Indian cultural ambience. I have no complaints with this because most of us cannot empathise with people with different cultural sensibilities. All I ask is that we ought to agree that western audiences are even more understanding of Indian cinema than Bollywood audiences are of South Indian cinema. The west does not say that Indians ought to make films with American or western sensibilities in mind. They simply ask that if we aspire to win an Oscar we stand a better chance of winning one if we make films with a UNIVERSAL APPEAL not necessarily with a western appeal. Like Turkey and Iran!
What is universal about Slumdog Millionaire?
Today Americans appreciate India better than ever before. They respect us and marvel at our development, at our love of democracy, of our secularism, and our innate genius. However flawed we may be we are a better bet for the future than many of our neighbours.
Slumdog Millionaire is our answer to the west that we also want the underdog to become the top dog. It stands to reason that people everywhere have sympathy for the underdog and are in awe of the small guy who makes it big.
Incidentally director Boyle has made two films earlier with the same theme – of the small guy making it big. He loves the small guy. This shows in his forays into a slum in Juhu in Mumbai and to Dharavi where he spent many months researching for the film.
He says that when he asked many youngsters if they would, given a chance to act in his film, try to copy Amitabh or Shahrukh Khan, they replied “We will act the way you want us to.” He adds that he was touched by the innocence of these kids when many of us would any day model ourselves and imitate these stars.
As for poverty the TIME correspondent asked a slum dweller if he felt embarrassed at poverty being shown in the film. The poor man replied “It is the rich who are embarrassed at showcasing poverty. For us it is a reality and we have no objection to its portrayal.”
Are we, the middle class, behaving like ostriches fooling ourselves into believing that something that we do not see does not exist?
By the way I wonder how many of you have noticed that many people north of the Vindhyas seem to think that Indian cinema is the same as Bollywood. Talk of the west ignoring Indian mainstream cinema!
Ironically Boyle himself was an underdog. There were no takers for Slumdog Millionaire. He, out of despair, almost decided to distribute it in DVD format since no distributor wanted to ‘risk’ taking it up. By sheer luck Warner took it up with fears about the fate of the film. The rest is history. Boyle the underdog is now the toast of the cinema world.
My friend Alphonso says that his pet dog Fifi is upset at the way Bollywood insults dogs. Fifi does not like the villain being compared to a dog.
“The day is not far,” barks Fifi, “when we dogs will make a film in which the hero dog will tell the villain dog – insaan kameene main tera khoon pee jaoonga!”
K.R. Ravi is South Asia’s first Dr.Edward De Bono certified public trainer in lateral thinking, and a pioneer in spreading lateral thinking in the Indian corporate sector. For more details, visit http://www.krravi.com or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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