Feb 14th 2009

Slumdog Oscar

by Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor, an acclaimed novelist and commentator, is a former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations

NEW DELHI - Indians haven't often had much to root for at the Oscars, Hollywood's annual celebration of cinematic success. Only two Indian movies have been nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category in the last 50 years, and neither won.

So Indians take vicarious pleasure in the triumphs of "mainstream" pictures with an Indian connection - the seven Oscars won by Richard Attenborough's Gandhi in 1983, for instance, or the success of The Sixth Sense, written and directed by a Philadelphian of Indian descent, Manoj Night Shyamalan.

This year, the country's attention has been riveted by the season's surprise hit, Slumdog Millionaire - set in India, with Indian characters, Indian actors and Indian themes - which has been nominated in ten categories. Indeed, for the first time, Indian citizens are in contention for two of the golden statuettes - for best song and for A. R. Rahman's musical score.

Movies made by Westerners about India have rarely been worth writing home about, ranging as they've done from the ignorant racism of Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to David Lean's well-intentioned but cringe-inducing Passage to India, with Alec Guinness warbling away in brown-face. But most Indians regard Slumdog Millionaire as an exception.

Directed by England's Danny Boyle (Trainspotting), and based on the page-turning novel Q and A by Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, the film has captured the hearts of audiences and critics around the world with its tale of a child from the slums, a tea-boy in a call-center, who wins a TV quiz show modeled on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Exuberant, exciting, gaudy, and gritty in a way that can only be called Dickensian, Slumdog Millionaire brings contemporary Mumbai to life from the seamy side up, and it does so with brio, compassion, and all-round cinematic excellence.

This being India, the film - which is just beginning its cinematic release in the country, months after it hit Western screens - has also provoked dissent. Protests have been mounted by slum-dwellers against the movie's title: the term "slumdog," coined by the screenwriter, has given great offense, with demonstrators holding up postcards declaiming, "We are not dogs." (To the dismay of Indian liberals, a judge has admitted a petition against the filmmakers, but it is difficult to believe the case will go far.)

Others have, more predictably, decried the film's searingly authentic depiction of India's poverty and slum life. Slumdog Millionaire was filmed in large part with small hand-held digital cameras on location in Dharavi, Mumbai's (and Asia's) biggest slum, and does not skip the mounds of garbage, cesspits, and overflowing drains. There is even a scene involving human excrement that is both revolting and hilarious.

But this is not an exercise in the pornography of poverty. Slum life is depicted with integrity and dignity, and with a joie de vivre that transcends its setting. It is easy to see why this movie would appeal to international filmgoers in a way that a bleaker film like City of Joy, which was set in the slums of Calcutta, could not.

Others have protested that the film shows Indians as conniving, unprincipled, and ruthless, and that the only compassionate people in the film are a pair of white tourists who give the protagonist some money. This may reveal something of Boyle's view of human nature, but most Indian viewers know they live in a land largely devoid of larger-than-life heroes.

We Indians have learned to take human beings as they are, which is to say, as grossly imperfect. And the film's hero, played by the teenage British-Indian actor Dev Patel with a look that combines intensity and expressiveness, and yet seems utterly genuine, is as sincere a protagonist as you could hope to find.

So, if Slumdog Millionaire follows its four Golden Globes and Screen Actors' Guild awards, and seven BAFTA awards (the British Oscars) with an Academy Award or three, most Indians are bound to celebrate. And, if some of the larger-than-expected profits are directed toward the slums where the movie was made, the protestors are quite likely to fade away. What they want, after all, is a share of the glory.

Slumdog Millionaire is the work of an artist at the peak of his powers. India is Boyle's palette, and Mumbai - that teeming "maximum city," with 19 million strivers on the make, jostling, scheming, struggling, and killing for success - is his brush. The portrait that emerges has been executed with bold strokes, vivid colors, and striking images. It will stay in the mind's eye a long time, whether or not it sweeps the Oscars.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

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