Jan 13, 2009

World - Watching the new India unravel on screen

Hasan Suroor

What’s going on? First a novel that turns the idea of a new and happening India on its head wins the Man Booker Prize. Now a film on India’s brutalising child poverty and exploitation is headed for the Oscars, having swept the Golden Globes in all the four categories it was nominated for.

I am of course referring to White Tiger, Aravind Adiga’s stark exposure of corruption and deprivation in modern India, and Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle’s film about the lives of Mumbai’s slum children. Between them, they appear to have ripped the packaging off the post-1990s ‘Incredible India’ of weekend colour supplements and soft-focus television documentaries.

No doubt there will be conspiracy theories in a certain kind of ‘nationalist’ circles. There has already been a great deal of sniggering about Adiga’s ‘foreign’ background (he studied and lived mostly in the West). He has been accused of presenting a negative image of India to win praise abroad. Slumdog Millionaire is likely to come under even greater scrutiny because it is directed by a British film-maker.

But the fact is that both White Tiger and Slumdog Millionaire (adapted from Vikas Swarup’s novel Q&A) are works of Indian writers. And while it may be tempting to see Adiga’s novel through the prism of his Western upbringing, it will be more difficult to attribute motives to Mr. Swarup, a rising diplomat with impeccable ‘swadeshi’ credentials who is never ever off-message, as I found in my dealings with him when he was posted in London.

Let’s be honest, the India of White Tiger and SDM is the real India that, for a while, was overshadowed by the hype over the glittering India Inc. sanctified by the Forbes rich list and Time cover. But the downside of hype is that it makes people look harder at the emperor’s new clothes. And, of course, we all know what the child found under those new clothes.

I saw SDM, surrounded by a predominantly Western audience. I must confess it wasn’t the most comfortable two hours of my life as the vibrant all-new India unravelled on screen amid scenes of obscene poverty and horrific violence. “India is at the centre of the world; and I’m at the centre of India,” boasts a Mumbai thug, taking a swipe at the buzz about India’s new-found global stature.

The film, which has been praised for its ‘Dickensian feel,’ has again turned the spotlight on the hopelessness of India’s teeming underclass, with the media awash with special stories on the ‘slumdogs’ of Delhi and Mumbai.

Not having read Mr. Swarup’s book, I don’t know how closely the film follows the original story. But only someone like Boyle, with his ability to detect humour and optimism even in the depths of gloom without romanticising it, could have pulled it off. And unlike a lot of other serious film-makers, Boyle is not coy about using elements of popular Bollywood cinema to make the film accessible. This helps the film work at both levels: as a gritty social document and as entertainment.

Some critics have winced at a scene in which seven-year-old Jamal (the orphan who later wins the top prize in the television quiz show “Who Wants to be Millionaire?’” and becomes the slumdog millionaire) is so desperate to get an autograph of Amitabh Bachchan that he dives into a cesspit. As he emerges from the pit covered with filth from head to toe and stinking, everyone flees in terror and he’s left alone with his favourite superstar who happily gives him his autograph. One critic found the scene ‘jarring’ and in poor taste.

The triumphant joy on the boy’s face as he runs around waving Bachchan’s autograph, completely oblivious of his filthy state and reactions to it, is a sight to behold. It encapsulates his street-smart approach to life: he wants his favourite actor’s autograph and he will get it come what may.

Despite its gritty realism, the film is loaded with feel-good. It even has a Bollywood-style happy ending with the ‘hero’ — reunited with his girl — walking into the sunset against the backdrop of A.R. Rahman’s music. While purists will accuse Boyle of making too many concessions to the box office, his optimistic denouement can also be read as symbolising his belief in the “audacity of hope.” But what is important is that the film works.

What next after White Tiger and Slumdog Millionaire? An opera?

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