Jai Ho! From mobile ring tones to tea shops, the winning spirit is all over the place. No wonder the Congress has lapped up the Oscar winning song of Slumdog Millionaire as the main campaign jive. The number represents the spirit of India, its unparallel resilience. But does Slumdog Millionaire represent India? Or just a piece of fascinating cinema? Or a prejudiced peddling of India's poverty to the west?
What's lost is the assault the film mounts on Indian self-esteem. It's a matter of shame that not only we allow foreigners to portray such a derogatory picture of India but also go gaga about the West's stamp of approval.
I am not denying that there are slums in India and the plight of people who inhabit them remains a lot to be desired. The problem is when you show only the dark side, it feeds on western stereotypes about poverty in India.
That the film no way represents India is proved by its failure to strike a chord with the poor in India. If it was indicative of the reality in India, a movie with eight Oscars wouldn't have crashed at the Indian box office. Though I would like to believe Danny Boyle when he says the film was never meant to be a documentary on Mumbai's underbelly, I will still call it an attempt at peddling poverty porn and showing India at her worst. How else can one justify why the first shot of the Taj Mahal is through filth, when any other shot would have done.
Is the down and out of Dharavi all about the Hindu-Muslim riot of nearly 20 years ago which the film graphically depicts in the beginning? Boyle wants us to believe that the only way for Indian children to escape being maimed for forced begging is to win a reality show? Or that all Dharavi boys need to cheat foreigners or steal their shoes to make a living? In reality Dharavi is a business hub where people make a living and take care of each other. Slum dwellers do come to cities to make a fortune, and in Dharavi most actually do without entering a reality show!
In another visible attempt to make the darkness darker, Boyle makes poor Jamal being ready to show the "real India". Not just done with it, he brings out the the compassionate face of "real America". On the scale of civility, this act of manipulating the culture of a nation wouldn't rank much higher than maiming children for forced begging.
This strengthens my point that western audiences like Slumdog Millionaire because it deals with Indian poverty. It services their existing prejudices of India as a land of poor snake charmers.
It's time we show the brighter side of India to the world. For centuries, the bad image has been projected. So much so that many Americans still think sati is prevalent in India. This needs to change. We need to shed the low self-esteem we reel in and take more pride in our cultural and spiritual roots.
We have slums, we have beggars, yet we also are the most humane civilisation. It will always be very difficult for an outsider to judge India as she is full of opposites. It's our duty to show the world that though there are slums in India, we don't have slumdogs.
(23.3.2009-The writer is a former journalist, now an activist of Art of Living. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org )