Monday, January 26, 2009

No reason for controversy

Posted in Diversions, Generalities, India tagged , , , at 11:36 pm by graceandpoise

The film “Slumdog Millionaire” is the talk of the town in Mumbai right now. Those who speak with the loudest voices (the movie stars, the rich, the TV personalities, the politicians) have been decrying the movie as being “unfair” to India, as portraying only the worst aspects of the country and of the city of Mumbai. Even the country’s most famous movie star has apparently claimed that the movie is unfair, and that it’s receiving accolades because it was made by “westerners.” It’s the hot topic of debate around here these days.

Today, we went to see the movie, partly spurred on by all the talk surrounding it. I was struck by the realism of its portrayal of so many of the aspects of life in Mumbai, and in India in general. Yes, it shows some of the poorest sectors of society – something movies made in India rarely if ever do. Yes, it shows some of the most vicious aspects of society – something portrayed by Bollywood only somewhat more frequently. But the scenes of the Bombay slums, and the traffic, and the palatial new apartment buildings, and the abandoned hotels, and the scenes of daily life as the main characters pass through – all of these are pretty true-to-life.

Sure, for a movie-going public that is accustomed to everything being dressed up and scrubbed clean (the closest comparison I can think of that Americans would readily know would be something like a soap opera, but without the bedroom scenes), a movie that shows the seedier side of their home probably comes as something of a shock. But it is certainly not an unfair portrayal, nor does it show the place in any more negative of a light than any of innumerable movies showing the seedier side of New York, or the seedier side of any other major city.  In fact, as it portrays of the seedier side of Bombay, it actually shows a lot of respect for the people who live out their lives in the lower echelons of society.

The film is gitty, that’s for sure.  But there’s no reason for it to be so controversial.  Much as some would like it to be so, Bombay is not a fairy-tale city where there are no poor people, nobody falling on hard times, nobody taking advantage of others, and nobody being unfairly treated.  It is a city like any other, with its high-flying elite and its downtrodden, and everything in between.  In fact, Bombay is a city wherein the highest and lowest ends of society are not even separated by living in different parts of town, so it’s shocking to me that many members of the former category seem to be unaware of, or unwilling to admit to, the presence of the latter.

Off the soapbox: yes, I thought it was a very good film.  It was absorbing, entertaining, heartwrenching and uplifting.  I found myself on the edge of my seat more than once.  I’d recommend it.


  1. mom c said,

    Since I seem to be just a tad nervous about the upcoming travel, Steve has told me I am not to go see the film until after I have seen the real deal. He loved it though, and of course your Aunt Susan thinks he is being over protective.

  2. Jim said,

    I liked your comments about Mumbai and the film. I remembered my time in Delhi and how the Indians were very sensitive to anything negative relating to their culture, views or way of life. It was as if they ignored anything unpleasant and expected you to ignore it as well, which I couldn’t. I plan on seeing the movie, but after reading your blog I think I will see with another perspective. Thanks.

  3. Sharmishtha said,

    I came across this blog while bloghopping. I haven’t seen Slumdog but plan to, soon. As an Indian (now an NRI), the only thing I can say about this whole “sensitivity” issue is that first, many educated Indians, being at least bilingual (if not tri- or quadri-) have access to far more and far more diverse representations of Indian poverty, social injustice, inequality, etc. than the monolingual westerner usually does. I mean, we can watch Slumdog, but we can also watch and appreciate “Dharavi” (1992), “Ghulam” (1996?), “Satya” (1998), “Nayakan” (1987) and satires like “Jaane Bhi do Yaaron” (1981) and stories about the rural poor like “Welcome to Sajjanpur” (2008). And so most Indians understand that the system, while imperfect, is not rotten to the core. Second, stories like Jamal Malik’s that depict the entire system -from game show hosts to cops – as tyrannical, are just fantasy (though I look forward to watching the movie as a good romance). Ask the very first Indian Idol, Abhijeet Sawant (Indian Idol 2006), who came from the slums of Dharavi (and who I believe still lives there) whether he was beaten up and tortured or instead whether he was showered with adulation and – that most Bombay marker of having arrived – a cash advance for recording contracts.

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