At the 81st Annual Academy Awards, all eyes will be on the fate of ten nominations for the British-Indian movie Slumdog Millionaire. India’s track record in winning these awards has been miserable. Apart from one for costume design and an honorary award for Satyajit Ray, no Indian has held aloft an Oscar statuette. The country’s stature as a preferred outsourcing location for animation is, of course, well established. Recognition at this highest level will surely bolster the fortunes of our fast globalising film industry.
The runaway success of Slumdog here is noteworthy as this happens to be a milieu that is somewhat touchy about foreigners making films about its dead-end poverty. Look no further than Louis Malle or Roland Joffe’s efforts to make City of Joy in Kolkata. Even Ray was accused of exporting images of India’s poverty. Given this track record, the surprise really is that no major controversy hampered Danny Boyle directing this wonderful rags-to-riches film that exposes the seamier side of Mumbai’s slums.
To be sure, some critics have panned the film for exposing the Third World’s underbelly for the viewing pleasure of the First World. In sharp contrast, the response of the crowds who thronged the theatres to view it has been rapturous. Instead of being sensitive to scenes that brutally depict maiming of child beggars, among others, they applauded the film for its stark realism. Audiences were captivated by the chaiwallah who rose from the slums to win a popular game show by answering all the questions.
But what accounts for the nationalist hype and hoopla surrounding Slumdog’s chances of bagging Oscars? After all, a Briton has directed it with an Indian crew in an Indian setting. In an age of globalisation, it is perhaps no more Indian than when, say, Shekhar Kapur makes a film like Elizabeth with a foreign cast in a foreign setting. When national boundaries are fast getting blurred, perhaps a better way of appreciating it is that it’s a gripping movie made with the best available resources globally.
It is, thus, our Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon moment to celebrate a crossover hit in the making. The manner in which this Chinese movie — that was a stupendous success at the 74th Academy Awards — secured a greater mindshare of Hollywood’s attention has some parallels with Slumdog. Both films were based on local stories that had universal appeal. Both were shot with the best technical and directorial resources. This is indeed the path to acquiring a greater resonance with international movie-going audiences.
The Slumdog phenomenon is also a happy augury for the future. India’s film industry is fast becoming a global force. Anil Ambani has struck a deal to bankroll Steven Spielberg’s Dream Works SKG and has the best chances to make films that appeal to a wider audience than the NRI diaspora. Hollywood, too, has compelling reasons to engage with India. Walt Disney has taken a controlling stake here in UTV Software Communications Ltd. Warner Brothers has just released its Chandni Chowk to China.
So, filmmaking here is fast becoming a process with greater synergies between Bollywood and Hollywood. From this pot-pourri, the combination of Indian resources with international creativity is bound to usher in a new genre of crossover cinema that weaves its magic with captivating stories. India’s rich pluralistic tradition has enabled talent from different communities, regions, religions and languages to blossom in Bollywood. This must be preserved if India is to become an entertainment superpower.
The fact that a film based on slums has clicked domestically is also a pointer to a coming-of-age of Indian audiences for well-made movies that tell serious stories about the society we live in and the times we are passing through. As if on cue, independent movie directors have begun boldly experimenting with themes like alternative sexuality, coping with visual impairment and other handicaps, small town dreams and so on with the curiosity and instinct of reporters. This, too, is a healthy sign for our global cinematic aspirations.
India’s major advantage is demographic: over half of our population is below 20. There is also a higher concentration here of people between 15 to 35. This segment is crucial to the future of the movie business as it constitutes its biggest market. Like their counterparts elsewhere, those under-35 in India are more habituated to the narrative style of film than other art forms. This is an important reason why Hollywood has turned its attentions to India and Asian countries.
Getting that winning feeling at the forthcoming Annual Academy Awards is, therefore, important for all of us. Of course, there are some who argue that an Oscar should not be considered the ultimate recognition for our artists as our movies no way lag behind those of Hollywood. But if Bollywood indeed aspires to be the world’s dream factory, it must spin stories that also cross over to the other side. Slumdog’s popularity overseas indicates the possibilities in this direction that must be seized by our independent filmmakers.