What Does India Think About Slumdog Millionaire?

On January 23, Danny Boyle’s uplifting film about a Mumbai street child who rises to game show fame will open in India—to mixed buzz. Will the Indian reaction to the celebrated film affect its fate? Amulya Gopalakrishnan reports from Mumbai.

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On January 23, Danny Boyle’s uplifting film—about a Mumbai street child who earns both fame and skepticism by winning a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire-esque game show—will open in India. Though it has been a runaway success in the United States (and seems likely to win Best Picture), it is receiving mixed reactions in the country where it is set—do Indians see themselves in the film? And will their reactions to the movie affect its fate in any way? Amulya Goplakrishnan reports from Mumbai.

Slumdog Millionaire, the streetwise little-movie-that-could, is now vying for Oscar glory, after having won four Golden Globes, a bunch of BAFTA statuettes, and near-total adoration from the Western media. India is excited, nervous, and harshly judgmental even before the movie's commercial release (set for tomorrow, January 23).

At one level, we want to stake a claim to the winning side. From Vikas Swarup's novel Q&A, on which the movie's based, to A.R Rahman's joyous soundtrack and lead actress Frieda Pinto's effortless sense of style, excitement surrounds every aspect of the movie.

Any dead-on depiction of real squalor is open to the accusation of "using India" as eye-catching wallpaper.

And yet, many Indians, absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves, cringe at the gritty depiction of Mumbai that the movie seemingly holds up (and provides redemption from in the end).

Of course, this is just another iteration of an eternal grouse—decades back, the actress Nargis famously accused Satyajit Ray of peddling poverty to the West in his arthouse sensation, Pather Panchali. Any dead-on depiction of real squalor is open to the accusation of “using India” as eye-catching wallpaper—as romanticizing the slums for artistic gains.

"If Slumdog Millionaire projects India as Third World dirty underbelly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky underbelly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations," bristled actor Amitabh Bachchan wrote in his enormously influential blog. Bachchan, after a few decades of demigod status in Bollywood, is the very baritone of authority in Indian film. He also has a personal angle on this, having hosted the real Kaun Banega Crorepati (the Who Wants to be a Millionaire format show that provides the movie's spine and principal structuring device).

On the other end of the spectrum from Bachchan are people like writer Kalpana Sharma, who expect the film to be a rousing, consciousness-raising spectacle, like South Africa’s Tsotsi (set in Johannesburg township Soweto) or Brazil’s City of God (in Rio’s downtrodden favelas), that will force the world and let-them-eat-cake Indians to confront the dark facts about a country where about 400 million people live in grinding poverty. Sharma, who has written a book about Dharavi, Asia's largest shantytown where Slumdog Millionaire is set, hopes the film “will shine a light” on the “millions of people who continue to live their lives without clean water, or sanitation, or electricity” in India.

But to be fair, Slumdog Millionaire probably wasn't aiming for documentary mercilessness. "It's much like the reception that Aravind Adiga got (for his Booker prize-winning novel), The White Tiger—but here, I think we're getting totally worked up about very little," says Bharadwaj Rangan, film critic at the New Indian Express. " Slumdog Milionaire is just a fairytale, just a wish-fulfillment fantasy."

Rangan points out that the movie is, after all, constructed to be legible to a Western audience, with episodes tacked together to reveal something already known and readily identifiable to an outsider—“the Taj Mahal, the poverty, shit and filth, the call centre, the Hindu-Muslim riots—it's a very surface-level engagement with all of India's hot-button issues, it's all there,” he says.

But the question is: will a general stamp of approval from India alter the film's fate in any way? Does it matter what we think? Journalist and self-described global soul Pico Iyer describes watching the movie in California among twenty-somethings with absolutely no connection to India, who came away invigorated and upbeat from the experience—but he agrees that this Indian whine is partly justified. “What's exotic to a foreigner may be commonplace to you, that's valid criticism.”

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But then again, he adds, “I wouldn't go to Slumdog Millionaire to understand Mumbai. I'd go to Salaam Bombay (Mira Nair's film about street children) or to a Rohinton Mistry novel.” It is not a question of Boyle's foreign origins, but a matter of the texture that comes out of “intimacy, and length of acquaintance” with the place, feels Iyer.

Of course, India's never had a hard time accepting fairy tales from its own filmmakers. Siddharth Basu, whose production company, Synergy Adlabs, made the original game-show and collaborated in the making of Slumdog, points out that the “average Indian family doesn't live in a Scottish castle either.”

Basu says that he hasn't watched Slumdog yet, but he confessed to feeling queasy about the screenplay's obvious departures from the original novel. But then again, he reasons, it's not really about us at all—“It's partly a Danny Boyle movie, and partly a what-would-the-world like-to-see movie.”

So what makes it hard for Indians to accept Slumdog Milionaire on its own terms? After all, we can afford to be big. For all the fever dreams about Hollywood steamrollering cultures all over the world, India is a conspicuous holdout. Hollywood accounts for just about 5 percent of the entertainment market (including big name action flicks dubbed into Hindi and other languages) here. What's more, in a time when cultural traffic moves in all directions, and faster than ever, Indian popular cinema is a powerful force around the world.

On the other hand, the American Academy awards are still a wistful dream, and considered the ultimate arbiters of excellence here. And what makes Slumdog Milionaire especially complicated is the hybrid nature of it. Based on an Indian novel, shot in India with real slum kids, set to A.R. Rahman's music, featuring Bollywood vets Irfan Khan and Anil Kapoor in important roles, it confounds the usual cultural categories and expectations. This peculiar insider-outsider dynamic makes Basu's “it's just a Danny Boyle movie” logic a hard sell here, even as it ensures India's emotional investment in the film.

Amulya Gopalakrishnan writes for the Indian Express.