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Repackaging reality, again

india Updated: Jan 16, 2009 23:12 IST

Alert reader, you’re seeing right. This column has indeed changed its name. As the supernerd R.U. Sirius observed, you must occasionally mutate to take over the world. Like Salaam Bombay (1988) has morphed into Slumdog Millionaire to sweep up the awards again, 20 years after. Both films explore the lives of children in Mumbai’s underbelly. Both are picaresque narratives in the great tradition of Awaara and Sholay. Salaam’s lead character is Chaipau (‘tea and bread’), blood brother of the slumdog chaiwallah. Chaipau’s love interest is the prostitute Sola Saal, the chaiwallah’s a gangster’s moll trade-named Cherry. And both have a brother figure who’s gone totally wrong without losing his essential humanity.

But the similarity ends there. Salaam was conceived as an Indian art film, earned accolades on the festival circuit, became a cult movie in India and was nominated for the Oscars. Slumdog is English commercial cinema that ventures into the territory of Indian art cinema, is picking up mainstream awards and could become a cult hit everywhere. Apart from well-deserved praise, it’s earning brickbats usually fielded by art cinema, like the nationalistic charge of peddling India’s dark underbelly in the West. This chestnut has been around since Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and now, much is being made of Amitabh Bachchan (who features in Slumdog as an icon, and then as a disembodied hand) blogging irately about it.

But actually, he hasn’t. What he said, referring to the poor refugees who throng Europe’s streets, concerns the Western gaze: our underbelly looks sexier than theirs, and is more likely to win Western awards. Not entirely true, of course.

Quentin Tarantino, who depicts the twisted side of America in the easy, uncritical but passionately engaged manner in which Slumdog looks at Mumbai, usually needs a truck to haul his awards away.

But there is truth in Bachchan’s other charge, that art cinema is feted at festivals while Bollywood’s commercial work goes unrecognised. That’s partly because Bollywood earlier focused on remakes and formula crowd-pleasers tailored for Jhumritaliya rather than Leicester Square. But it has made giant strides in the last 20 years, slickly conflating big banner fantasy with reality, once the exclusive province of art cinema. This week, Akshay Kumar released a Warner Brothers movie featuring a Chinese martial artist and Punjabi rap. He’s come a long way from the slew of Khiladi sequels that litter his career. And if you remember how A.R. Rahman’s debut hit ‘Rukkumani’ (Roja, 1992) changed film music forever, he is obviously getting international attention way too late.

Simultaneous releases have made Indian commercial cinema accessible to Western audiences and the effect is palpable. When India was guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2006, the star attraction was not one of our writers but Karan Johar. And he was mobbed by genuine Rhinemaidens, not just the expat desi crowd. But something was still missing. When Lagaan lost out in the Oscars, US filmmakers said it was pitched wrong. In some unfathomable way, it had failed to reach out. Maybe a Western production like Slumdog, Indian in form and content, ending with a Bollywood dance number by Rahman and Gulzar, is just what was needed to bridge the gap.

(Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine)