Thursday, February 19, 2009

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

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Thursday, February 5, 2009

Warts, We Worry?

Some people have been outraged by the two controversies that have surrounded Danny Boyle’s film, Slumdog Millionaire. The first is the entirely needless row over whether Slumdog is an Indian film. This is a silly dispute. Of course, it isn’t an Indian film. It’s produced by foreigners, written by a foreigner, directed by a foreigner and cast by foreigners. (Would you cast Dev Patel, who speaks no Indian language and whose family has been away from India for generations, as a boy from the Bombay slums? My point exactly: only a Brit would.)
But it’s the second controversy that is more significant. In his blog, Amitabh Bachchan may or may not have complained that Slumdog focuses too much on India’s poverty (I say “may not” because Amit now says that he was quoted out of context) but some others have made the same point more forcefully.

I was in the US a couple of weeks ago and many Indians who live there told me that they were embarrassed to see India portrayed as a land of slums. Educated Indians I have met in Delhi and Bombay have also said that they wished that the film had included fewer shots of the filth of Dharavi — a particular point of distress was the scene where the arrival of Amitabh Bachchan leaves Jamal covered in crap.

I have no strong views on Slumdog Millionaire but the interesting thing about the second controversy is not that it exists, but that it has remained a storm in a chai cup. Those who have worried about the depiction of Indian poverty have remained a tiny minority (including a few litigious cranks) and their voices have been drowned in the chorus of approval that has greeted Slumdog’s international success and the optimism with which we regard the film’s Oscar prospects.

Lovleen Tandan is now almost a household name — astonishing for a person who had barely been heard of three months ago. Dev Patel has been adopted by India and our very own Anil Kapoor is our ambassador to the world, dispatched to international functions to jump about and fling his arms in the air every time Slumdog wins some award, taking filmi Kapoor exuberance to every corner of the globe.

This is significant when you take into account the background. For decades now, educated Indians have been notoriously sensitive about the manner in which India is portrayed in a cinema. We have banned films for “damaging the image of India” and have condemned them for “glorifying poverty”.

There’s no doubt that Slumdog’s scriptwriter has significantly upped the grime and dirt quotient from the original story
contained in Vikas Swarup’s Q&A, on which the movie is based. The star of the book was its hero with the quirky Amar Akbar Anthony-type name (changed to Jamal in the film). The star of Slumdog Millionaire, on the other hand, is the city of Bombay in all its filthy glory.

And yet, despite the odd blog from Amitabh Bachchan (since disowned), vague criticism from NRIs and a few critical comments from educated Indians, we have been content to appreciate Slumdog for what it is and to even treat it as an example of India’s global success in the 21st century. The overwhelming majority of us have not complained about any ‘negative portrayal of India’ and the Censor Board has not been asked by the government to cut offending portions or to ban the film.

This is a distinct break with tradition. As recently as the 1980s, the government of India objected to Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom on the grounds that the film was unfair to India (it was, but then, it was such a terrible film that it was probably unfair to cinema as well). Spielberg was refused permission to shoot in India and the film was not commercially released here.

Other filmmakers have faced similar hurdles. Dominique Lapierre’s book, City of Joy, is a rubbishy, sentimental hymn of
praise to Calcutta. But when Roland Joffe came to Calcutta to film the novel, he was greeted by protests and the CPI(M) (in the person of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who had not yet perfected the kindly Uncle Buddha act he now favours) made his life hell, forcing him to alter his script. (The film sank without a trace.)

Though Deepa Mehta’s Water was finally shot in Sri Lanka and released to no great outrage, the director had to abandon
shooting the film in Benaras because sections of the Sangh parivar agitated violently against it on the grounds that by focusing on the appalling mistreatment of widows, Mehta had set out to defame India and Hinduism itself.

Instances of this sort abound throughout our post-Independence history. In the 1960s, the Government of India first cooperated with the making of Nine Hours to Rama, about Gandhiji’s assassination, then turned against the unit and then finally banned the film on the grounds that it — yes, you guessed it! — “showed India in a negative light”.

In 1971, Indira Gandhi’s government threw the BBC out of India and forced it to close down its offices because BBC TV in Britain telecast Louis Malle’s Immortal India, a series of documentaries about India. The BBC had not made the films. Malle was already an acclaimed French director, and he actually believed that the films were an expression of his love for India. But still the government acted with anger and force.

The Hindi film industry has been consistently critical of Hollywood’s attempts to film India. One example was the celebrated Committee to Oppose the Gandhi Film, set up by new wave directors to torture Richard Attenborough when he was making his magnum opus. But nearly every foreign movie (with the possible exception of Tarzan Comes to India) has faced opposition.

Indian directors who find favour in the West have faced similar fury. The late Nargis Dutt went on record to attack Satyajit Ray for focusing on India’s poverty. And Raj Kapoor told me in an interview in 1980 that Ray’s films only found success abroad because they (here it comes!) “showed India in a negative light”.

So, why has Slumdog Millionaire mostly escaped this kind of mindless sniping?

Here’s my take: our response to Slumdog Millionaire says less about the film than it does about today’s India. We know that there’s more to Bombay than the filth of the slums. But we don’t deny that the dirt and poverty exist. And we are quite content to let it be shown.

I guess you could say we’ve grown up. And our reaction to Slumdog Millionaire demonstrates India’s new maturity and confidence.

Source: Hindustan Times
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