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Slumdog equations

The government is reportedly thinking of abandoning its anti-poverty programmes and supporting game shows and song and dance contests instead, writes Manas Chakravarty.

india Updated: Feb 28, 2009 23:28 IST

Slumdog fever continues to rage throughout India. But not everyone is happy about the portrayal of the country in the movie, with many arguing there was no need to unnecessarily harp on the poverty and brutality of our society. Instead of a boy from the slums, they should have shown a poor nuclear scientist, unable to scrape up the funds required for higher studies, winning the game show by sheer brain power and going on to study at MIT, said a person demonstrating against the movie. Alternatively, said another protestor, they could have shown an Indian IT engineer getting the prize money in the show by solving a complex programme in C++ and then migrating to the US.

At the other extreme, there are those who say that the film’s depiction of poverty and the hero getting rich through a game show is unrealistic. “They should have made both Jamal Malik, the hero, and his girlfriend Latika become bonded labourers and lead a miserable existence for the rest of their lives, because that’s reality,” said a social worker. Alternatively, she said, they could have shown Jamal getting tuberculosis because he was malnourished as a child and the climax could have been the hero coughing blood while Latika, herself an Aids victim, cries buckets over him.

Most people, however, are very happy the film has won an Oscar. “Jamal is a symbol of hope, resilience and optimism,” gushed a politician, and he embodies the spirit of India. Asked about the other people in the film, like the beggars and the orphans who do not manage to make it big, he said those losers obviously represented the spirit of Pakistan.

Meanwhile, Bollywood producers are mulling over a more practical problem. What does the movie tell us about the formula for success? asked one of them with furrowed brow. After much discussion, they agreed that Poverty+ slums+NRI actor+English director+A.R. Rahman+Pookutty+love story=Oscar. Some of them, however, warned this blueprint would not work with an Indian audience and the formula would have to be modified to Poverty+ slums+NRI actor+English director+A.R. Rahman+ Pookutty+love story+dances every fifteen minutes by lots of dancing girls in bras and pink tights=Oscar+box office success.

The reaction to the film has been very different in the slums, with every one of them doing its best to attract foreign
film-makers. “We too are poor,” protested a slumdweller living above a foul sewer in Mumbai’s northeastern slum of Govandi, “far poorer than people in Dharavi.” Slums from other cities have joined in the competition. “We have bigger, filthier cesspools,” said a proud resident of one of Kolkata’s many stinking slum colonies, “which deserve to be showcased by the film industry.” “We have more rubbish than any other place,” said a scavenger from Delhi’s Ghazipur dump before disappearing into a putrid pile of garbage.

A resident of Mumbai’s Kamathipura red-light area claimed, “We offer poverty plus sleaze”, adding that the place bubbled with energy. She pointed out that after coming there at age 13, she had worked her way up to become madam of a large establishment. “Mine is a true rags-to-riches story,” she said. Several politicians have also put forward their claims. “I had a few thousand rupees in my bank account before I became a minister,” said one of them, “but I’m worth several crores now. Isn’t that dynamic enough for these film-wallahs? I’m trying to get them interested in making a movie called Scumbag Billionaire.”

Overjoyed with the success of the film, the government is reportedly thinking of abandoning its anti-poverty programmes and supporting game shows, song and dance contests and reality shows instead. “The prize money will make people’s lives better,” said an official. When asked about the people who didn’t win, he said they could be cast in documentaries on malnutrition, prostitution, poverty and so on, thus winning Oscars in the Best Documentary category. “That way,” he pointed out smugly, “we combine anti-poverty with Oscar maximisation.”

(Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint)