A billion stories now

Celebrating a canny sense of survival: Dev Patel and Anil Kapoor in “Slumdog”.

Celebrating a canny sense of survival: Dev Patel and Anil Kapoor in “Slumdog”.   | Photo Credit: Photo: BLOOMBERG NEWS


Is “Slumdog Millionaire” a put-down of a country with pretensions to rising power or is it a back-handed celebration of all things Indian? Or simply, a celebration of perseverance and success against incredible odds? It is, in some measure, all of these...

“Slum” is an evocative word that goes to the heart of the contradictions within India and inarguably part of the movie’s draw. It is not, however, Hollywood’s highly romanticised version of gutters and swine.

Bollywood movies have their global following, thanks to the countless members of the diaspora who have carried their love for kitschy, formulaic thrillers to wherever they have gone. It is, however, unusual for a movie to marry the realism of Hollywood and the fantasy of Bollywood into one international box-office phenomenon. “Slumdog Millionaire”, which will open to Indian audiences on January 23, has drawn rave reviews in the West and is en route to win at least a couple of Oscars.

What exactly is “Slumdog Millionaire’s” cachet? It is not the poverty in Mumbai or the fairy tale rags-to-riches story. It is not about the venality so brazenly on display in the movie. It is not about the 665 million “public defecators” whose everyday lives are so graphically portrayed. And, finally, it is not about the apparent paradox in the film’s title. British director Danny Boyle’s celluloid creation has been such a runaway success and the winner of four Golden Globe awards because, in my view, it helps answer the West’s abiding question: What makes India tick? Granted not all of its fans are viewing it through a microscope and looking for larger meanings, but there is clearly an audience for India’s chaotic story of perseverance.

Rising from ashes

As the Satyam debacle and the recent Mumbai siege make clear, corporate mendacity and violence stalk the nation, but no people rise faster from the ashes or face adversity with as much stoicism as the Hindustani.

To wit, the Leopold Café in Mumbai where gunmen burst in on November 26 to hold the entire city on edge was back in business shortly after the last of the raiders had been captured, even before the blood stains could be properly wiped off the floor. The two five-star hotels targeted were equally quick to re-open their doors to foreign tourists. Add to that a canniness that is ingrained in the national psyche. There is a moment in the film when Anil Kapoor (who plays a game show host in the Hindi version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”) suggests an answer to the “slumdog”, in the washroom — a typically Indian way of cheating, perhaps — but the chap in the hot seat is not fooled. He blurts out an answer that is different from the one suggested by the show’s quizmaster, essentially cocking a snook at the guy who pretended to be rooting for him.

This morality play is akin to the prisoner’s dilemma that is textbook fare for every student of political science. The credibility of your interlocutor is always in doubt and you are left second-guessing every response. A sleight of hand best understood by the people of India and one explanation perhaps for the nation’s emergence as a maximalist power with nuclear weapons and reach into space even as rival powers are denied the same privileges and its political elite swear by Gandhian ahimsa (non-violence).

It is surely not an accident that the two big artistic winners of the last few months that have India as their theme focus on the rising power’s bleak side. Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger won the Booker Prize with a literary account of an “India that is two countries in one: an India of Light, and an India of Darkness.” The protagonist, Balram Halwai, a servant, masseur and driver rolled into one, kills his employer and becomes rich by running away with his money. In the days leading up to the murder, he muses about “how the rich always (italics in original) get the best things in life, and all that we get is their leftovers.”

“Slumdog Millionaire’s” storyline follows a similar arc. Opening simultaneously across 500 theatres in North America in early December, it has already earned more than any other movie aimed at Indophiles. I was surprised by the attendance at an Ottawa theatre a few weekends ago, with the audience staying in their seats as if in a daze even after the credits were rolling at the end. The visual onslaught, even for one raised in Mumbai, had been too much — too graphic and frontal, and often times revolting. A fourth of the dialogue was in Hindi, with sub-titles, but nobody seemed to mind.

Yet, it has won approval not only from theatre-goers, but also critical acclaim by movie aficionados, even before arriving on screens in India.

Although “Slumdog” is based on a novel written by an Indian diplomat, Vikram Swarup, who, incidentally, is the country’s Deputy High Commissioner to South Africa, Mr. Boyle has taken plenty of liberties. But Mr. Swarup is not complaining, pointing out “India is a nation of a billion stories…One day’s newspaper has enough plots for a few novels.” True, but the unflattering portrayal is not likely to go down well with a proud people who watch in awe as their nation fulfils its long-promised tryst with destiny, no matter if they live in Dharavi hovels.

Sympathetic portrayal

“Slum” is an evocative word that goes to the heart of the contradictions within India and inarguably part of the movie’s draw. It is not, however, Hollywood’s highly romanticised version of gutters and swine. Mr. Boyle wants us to visualise it differently: “They are just places where people live. They are not wealthy people, but quite resourceful people. They are not provided by the state. The sewage system doesn’t work, but the homes are clean. They are very generous. They were very keen that we didn’t just say they were poor.”

It has been two decades since another book set in Mumbai, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children opened the floodgates for a new genre of literature and moviemaking that fed into the fascination with Indian mysticism and yoga. This genre has matured, but continues to beg the question, are they works of envy or pride? Are they the West’s put-down of a great civilisation that is redeeming its glory of yore or a backhanded celebration of all things Indian? “Slumdog” takes this debate to the next level.

George Abraham is contributing editor of Diplomat and International Canada published from Ottawa.

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