Monday, January 26, 2009
No reason for controversy
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.