In the days to come, there will be widespread discussion on Slumdog Millionaire and whether it reflects the true worth of India and is indeed a representation of life in India. There will be many who will suddenly change their stance, now that the film has won eight Oscars. There will be silly marketing managers who will try and devise strategies as to how Jamal Malik can now endorse brands for all things Indian.
For me, personally, the Oscar ceremony on February 22 at the Kodak Theatre was more than just about a film set in Bombay. It was about recognising the true worth of soft power and its role in building a brand: in this case, Brand India and I believe for that and that alone, we need to be grateful to Danny Boyle. The film could easily have been set in Africa. We may have missed A.R. Rahman’s music, but I am sure the treatment would not have been so dramatically different.
In today’s challenging times, soft power is increasingly becoming a critical virtue of both retaining interest in a nation as also in seeing it move forward. The Oscar wins for Slumdog were not about rewarding a film: they were about the Resul Pookuttys, the A.R. Rahmans and the Gulzars. They were about the latent talent that has existed in India but has not gotten its due share on a global stage. The Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles provided the global canvas to Indian soft power, and the ceremony will go a long way in redefining Brand India, especially in the US — a country not known for its awareness of geography.
In many ways, Slumdog is a film which hits the right notes and, most critically, at the right time. America is going through its worst crisis – both an economic one as also one in values. This film is not just about meeting aspirations, it is also not just a rags-to-riches story but instead a story that is fundamentally mired in hope. In a strange way, just about a month separated the Kodak Theatre from Washington, when Barack Obama — the brand beacon of hope — was sworn in. Slumdog Millionaire, like Obama, operates (and creates lasting value and benefits) at many layers.
In times like these, hope is a powerful healer of myriad woes, much like the film. The film is not about a slum dog alone. It is about a community that can perceive achievement no matter how short-lived; can celebrate the success of one of its own as if it belonged to the entire community and in a strange way this is what is happening across India. Every Indian is celebrating this Oscar success but in a very tangential way, we are also celebrating our Indianness and have the maturity to come to terms with the fact that our slums will co-exist with our spanking chrome and glass buildings. For many, the Kodak Theatre was a way of establishing our own little circles of influence and pride and this is what I believe the film has enabled us to do.
Will one film change the way a nation thinks? Perhaps not. But it will, at least for some time, give us a reason to celebrate and smile. Will it help re-engineer Brand India in the minds of many? I guess it will and for that we must laud Danny Boyle’s choice of location.
In the ultimate analysis, it is not about a film but a lasting impact. It is about seeing Rubina and Azharuddin in their gowns and suits: pitch-forked from Dharavi to Los Angeles. That transition and symbolism is inspirational. It is about ‘Jai Ho’ being sung on a global stage, replacing rap and rhythm and blues — it was the language of India, the expression of our culture and the heartbeat of a nation that was showcased before the world.
That is how a brand’s soft power is built and this is what Slumdog has done for us. So let’s cut out the moral debate; stop quibbling about the ownership and nationality of the film and instead hail and celebrate what it has already achieved and what it will do for Brand India. Beyond just cinema.
Suhel Seth is the CEO of Counselage, a Delhi-based brand and marketing consultancy.