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The real slum shady

The way we react to Slumdog Millionaire’s depiction of India will determine how much we have culturally matured. Namita Bhandre elaborates.

india Updated: Jan 16, 2009 23:12 IST
Namita Bhandre

How on earth did they allow Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire to be shot in Mumbai? By ‘they’, of course, I mean the commissars of culture, the faithful watchdogs of our beloved Bharat Mata on constant vigil against evil imperialists making movies about our wretched poverty, our pathetic widows and our sad child marriages.

Yet, here was Boyle apparently free to film Mumbai’s undeniable seamier side. Had he had several warm beers with Bal Thackeray in an attempt to buy peace? Had he become best friends with the nephew? How was he allowed to let it all hang out: beggar gangs that maim children, piles of rotting garbage, cops who assume torture as part of routine interrogation, small time bhais and fat cat TV anchors? Where were the howls of protest?

India shining or not, we’ve always been prickly about our cinematic image, more so when it’s projected to a foreign audience. Canada-based film-maker Deepa Mehta had to beat a hasty retreat from Varanasi and shoot Water, a film about widows in 1930s India, in Sri Lanka thanks to protests backed by the BJP and the VHP.

The Left parties’ record is as abysmal. In 1989, Rolland Joffe was given permission to make a film based on Dominique Lapierre’s City of Joy. Within a few months, however, the government had fallen and V.P. Singh’s new regime withdrew permission on the grounds that the script made offensive references to Calcutta. The state government’s then Minister for Information and Cultural Affairs, Buddhadev Bhattacharjee called it an “insult to Calcutta's dignity”.

To cut a long story, Joffe did 13-14 rewrites, excised his original opening scene, which depicted a child marriage and agreed to endless demands, including one from a liaison officer who took exception to a scene showing children gambling; Joffe substituted cards for money. We banned Roberto Rossellini’s India. We also banned Nine Hours to Rama, Louis Malle’s Calcutta (we burned the print too) and The Phantom India.

So, for me, the best part about Slumdog Millionaire was the possibility that perhaps we have grown up as a culture, after all. To allow a film like this shows a certain amount of confidence: we don’t mind films that show our seamier side because we know that the world is also aware of our shinier side. And, frankly, we don’t care that much either way. We ‘allow’ films to be made, because we’re a free country that believes in free expression.

But here’s the spoiler in the form of our latest self-appointed commissar, Amitabh Bachchan, taking off from where his friend Thackeray Sr left off: “If SM [Slumdog Millionaire] projects India as Third World dirty under belly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots [sic], let it be known that a murky under belly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations.”

Excuse me? Has Boyle said that developed nations don’t have a “murky under belly”? But Slumdog is a film set in Mumbai,
based on Vikas Swarup’s novel Q&A. It is not set in New York or London or Paris (from where Mr B dashed off his blog). And surely, Bollywood’s badshahs are free to tell the murky tales of any of these underbellies.

Yes, Slumdog is about poverty. It’s also about the triumph of the underdog. And it’s about enduring love and friendship and loyalty. Audiences are free to grab whatever message appeals to them. Do we take pride that a film set in Mumbai with a large crew out of India is sweeping the award circuit?

Or do we take offense that it portrays an unpleasant, though real, aspect of India? Should we continue to insist that our entertainment comes sanitised in pretty gift-wrapping, not literally covered in shit? Bachchan’s insistence on escapist entertainment as the best entertainment is laughable and when he gripes that Slumdog has won awards because it’s made by a ‘Westerner’, my first reaction is: sour grapes?

Bachchan should be applauding the new wave of artistic freedom that allows films like Slumdog.

Instead, he’s become the harbinger of a type of professional agitator who should have been extinct by now. Big B should have been bigger than what his blog comments have shown him to be.