I watched Slumdog Millionaire in the comfort of a mall where I spent more on the tickets and the popcorn and Pepsi than what a daily wage labourer makes in a week. With my evening set against the backdrop of glitzy brands and voracious shoppers, I walked into the hall anticipating that I would feel guilt and self-loathing that in turn, would make me lash out at the “exploitative depiction of poverty” in the film.
Having seen the most-talked about film of the year, I can argue that the controversy is just so much humbug. It’s a manufactured debate that reveals a petty, thin-skinned intolerance. And as liberal Indians, we need to ask ourselves what it is about Slumdog Millionaire that has got under our skins. Yes, maybe, had an Indian director made a movie about Bombay’s underbelly, it wouldn’t have got the same kind of global attention. I’m even willing to grant some points to the cynics who argue that the Bombay attacks have made the India story a top-of-the-menu item. And perhaps, the love thing between Jamal and Latika doesn’t capture everyone’s romantic imagination. But none of this explains the self-righteous hand-wringing over how India’s poor are portrayed.
Where were all the carpers when Vikas Swarup first wrote the book that gave birth to the movie? If the objection is to the gaze of the ‘outsider’ isn’t any Indian of a certain socio-economic milieu as much of an outsider? Are you and I, ensconced in the comfort of our urban, middle-class lives, better qualified to capture the essential truth of life in a slum? And are we now going to reduce the art of cinema to eyewitness chronicles?
The irony is that Slumdog Millionaire — more than many films I have seen in recent years — manages to capture poverty in a way that is neither patronising nor simplistic. It entirely escapes the clichés of charity that bleeding-heart politics can sometimes force on a narrative. Yes, it often makes you squirm in your seat. I had to look away when a young boy’s eyes were gouged out with burning oil by a beggars’ mafia. I laughed, but not entirely, when a young Jamal went wading through shit just to be able to get an autograph signed from Amitabh Bachchan. Both these moments were scathing signposts of how much we have come to not notice; of how we hide from the truths of inequities and neglect.
And yet, the movie is a masterpiece — because it is able to capture the horror of these moments without being pitiful or guilty. On the contrary, more than the poverty, it is really the energy, entrepreneurship and imagination of the slum kids that is the driving force of the story. To that extent, the primary emotional characteristic of the movie is the ‘jugadu’ spirit that is so typical of India. Jugadu, of course, was originally the word for a marvellous invention — a hybrid automotive that welds the body of a jeep with the engine of a water pump and looks like a tractor. Today it has come to be our shorthand for spunkiness — a, we-will-get-the-job done attitude no matter how bad the odds are. So, if Jamal wants Latika he will play at being a millionaire, though it isn't really the money he is after.
Even the game show operates, in a sense, as a metaphor not just for aspiration but for attainability. It is all about the New India where dreams can come true. We may be incredulous about the coincidence between Jamal’s life experiences and the questions he gets asked on the show (it’s a movie, for God’s sake) but think about it. Is it really so impossible that talent can catapult an ordinary life into extraordinary fame and wealth? You only have to think of Vaishali Bhaisni Made who just walked away with Rs 50 lakh by winning a TV music contest. Vaishali failed thrice at her auditions but just kept at it. Vaishali knows a thing or two about poverty. She grew up as a farmer’s daughter in a small village in Amravati not far from Maharashtra’s suicide country. Now, trophy in hand, she thanks the city of Bombay, for “allowing her to dream.” On his India trip, Danny Boyle, told me this fascinating story about his encounter with a vendor in the slums of Bombay while researching for his film. The man told Boyle irritably that he was sick of camera crews coming in and stereotyping his life as “poor.” He wanted Boyle to know that he worked hard to earn a respectable living and was sick of being labelled.
It is this voice that Boyle is able to cast in his characters — a voice of pride and self-respect — even when pitted against people with muscle and money. Think about how Jamal — accused of cheating his way through the show — gets beaten up at the local police station. He doesn’t bend; he doesn’t succumb — he answers back with the confidence of being on the side of the right. It’s the story of the underdog told without victimhood. We Indians used to love those stories (Think of any Bachchan film from the 1970s). So what’s our problem now? Is it that we think the world is watching? And we only want them to see those swanky malls? So, then why do we want to claim the film as our own, when it sweeps the Oscars and the Globes? If anything, the movie is blatant in its affection for India. We can have different views on whether it deserves all the fuss it’s getting. But, let us not hide from the bare truths of the film, just like we duck the beggars at the street light.