Congratulations, Criticism & Controversy


Love it or hate it, you just can't ignore it.

Congratulations

First, let me congratulate the makers of the film "Slumdog Millionaire" on winning multiple Oscars. It was no doubt a highly entertaining film, and all of its (mostly Indian) critics will have to concede that fact. Danny Boyle and his production crew managed to get under the skin of the Indian psyche and capture the raw energy, the breathless dynamism, the cruel environment in which enduring hope flourishes despite all odds, of the country we call our motherland. But great art does not seek to attain a consensus of appreciation, but rather, an array of conflicting views.

Also deserving of applause and appreciation is our very own A R Rahman, the musical genius who has touched the heart of every Indian with his melodies for years now. He is a living legend, and the world has now belatedly recognized his genius. He deserves every bit of his success. But I would also like to add that the award goes to his individual genius and not to India as a whole. If people are happy that Rahman won the award, then great. But if they think that this is somehow an honour bestowed on our country, then they are deluding themselves. If anything, it is almost sad that Rahman's genius could reach the world only through a foreign production.

Criticism

The movie certainly had flaws and many critics have pointed them out. But I, for one, do not think that there is anything wrong in the movie's portrayal of India. Of course it doesn't entirely accurately convey the conditions in today's India. But then, why on earth would you have such an expectation from a film? Innumerable Bollywood films portray extremely lavish settings and extravagant locales. Does anybody complain that they do not portray the average Indian man? Why should they, and similarly, why shouldn't foreign film makers have the liberty to portray whichever section of the country they wish to? Why such double standards? Many others have claimed that the film is not, by itself, an extraordinary specimen of film making, and certainly not worthy of an Oscar. Such views are held almost exclusively by Indian critics and I explain this under the heading 'Paradox' below.

Controversy

Indians, unfortunately, get very worked up about India's image in the western world. We want to be loved and celebrated by the West, and every little pat on the back or a smile of appreciation is magnified in importance. Theories abound as to why we behave this way, and most of them suggest that it has something to do with having a colonial mindset that craves validation by the West.

The fact of the matter is that Slumdog Millionaire was a movie that was conceived and created by British filmmakers. It so happened that India was where they chose to set the story in. It is NOT, as many people believe, the 'world's-window-into-India' nor is it how everyone in the West will eternally view us. I find it funny, if not downright ridiculous that people have gotten agitated over its portrayal of India as a wretchedly poor and cruel place. I also wonder why an ancient civilization is so insecure about its own identity.

The Paradox:
What explains the fact that western critics are almost unanimous in their acclaim of the film, while the film has not quite been accepted by the Indian masses or critics. I think the reason for this difference of opinion lies in our own identity as Indians. We Indians have long known of the existence of the India portrayed in the movie. We've all seen urchins, and orphans, amputated gangs of beggars, exploited children and abject poverty. But for the western audiences, this was an entirely new world, uniquely tragic yet magnificently hopeful. Indian viewers, who do not feel this novelty, are obviously less impressed. I think that explains the paradox of the movie receiving rave reviews everywhere except the country in which it is based.


What I would like to see is a global awareness of the issues confronting the slum-dwellers and an effort (national or international) to solve their problems. With more awareness might come real answers. I end this with a moving slideshow of Dharavi Slums.

Comments

  1. I think the film-makers are British not American :)..and I agree with the "Paradox" that we indians are facing in digesting the success of the movie..Many frustrated indian also say that movie is a success because it gives westerners an opportunity to ridicule India and it's poverty which according to me is a baseless allegation on western world..

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  2. @Ravi: oops.. the error has been corrected now :)

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  3. "Many others have claimed that the film is not, by itself, an extraordinary specimen of film making, and certainly not worthy of an Oscar. Such views are held almost exclusively by Indian critics."

    I believe that 'Milk' was far better film than 'Slumdog Millionaire'. The only reason 'Milk' didn't win the best film Oscar was because of right wing politics in US. The Academy comprises of large number of republicans who just didn't approve of the subject. As far as Slumdog Millionaire is concerned, it was a combination of great screenplay, great cinematography, great music score and some terrible terrible acting.

    P.S. For the information of other readers, the author of this blog hasn't seen any of the other Oscar nominated films but still somehow knows why Slumdog was the best film of the year.

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  4. @ravi
    "I agree with the "Paradox" that we indians are facing in digesting the success of the movie"

    I think its just the opposite. We Indians tend to celebrate anything which is even remotely related to us. Whether its the success of Barack Obama or Bobby Jindal or Sunita Williams, we never miss a chance to take joy in "our" success.

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  5. very well written as always.."art does not seek to attain a consensus of appreciation"..very cool line and powerful argumentation at the same time..

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  6. The film depicted a bird's eye view of what is often the much try to conceal fate of about 70% of the population living under the wretched conditions. Nothing in the film was superfluous i think.
    I think this branding phenomena is not just limited to B-Schools but our National elements are too busy portraying the same overhyped image of the same. Shining India, Incredible India and so on. But sometimes it is good to have a tete a tete with reality too.
    I have seen films depicting far more wretched India ( something of the league of Rudaali etc) winning National Awards, then why is it difficult for the same critics to digest the same now.
    The reasons could be found far more in Kotler i guess.

    @ Ajey
    Milk was a good movie, with great acting done by the lead. But the movie wasn't as engaging as compared to slumdog. Both the movies had the same theme of banking upon the basic human tenet of feeling good on the victory of an underdog and while one was a real life adaptation the underdog could not be shown as much wretched as in a scripted one.

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  7. @Ajey: You missed the point (as usual) :P But three strikes is a new record even for you.. :P

    Strike 1: 'the author of this blog' never claimed that Slumdog was the best movie of the year anywhere in the post.

    Strike 2: He has also seen Milk, The Reader & Benjamin Button.

    Strike 3: There's no contradiction between Ravi's and your viewpoints. Indians haven't really liked the movie, as evidenced by its poor box office performance in the country (Ravi's point), but have still been happy celebrating the Oscar win (your point). No contradiction because both are talking about different things.

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  8. @kt: Thanks :)

    @Amanpreet: Totally agree with you. Your comparison between Slumdog and Milk is dead on. :)

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  9. I wonder Indians who have never actually loved films or write on cinema hate this movie. Even critics or general audience. Normal perceptions are misguided here, every third Indian movies here has the theme of Slumdog yet people are not bothered by it, but blame the film because its directed by a Brit.

    Though we love the film and atleast Boyle woke the industry up that folks here is your theme and let me show you how to do it right.

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  10. i never thought id get pulled so much into discussions of a movie, especially a mediocre one. my grouse is not the movie's depiction of india's poverty. it is the annoyance that a mediocre movie is being lauded as a seminal work of art at the world stage. it is a continuation of the world's increasing interest in india, which gradually emerges economically, and the increasing interactions of the west with india, thanks to offshoring, the internet, the increasing political interest in the region maybe etc etc (and as the world becomes increasingly smaller). india's paradoxes also obviously evoke a lot of interest in the west - an ancient culture with its idiosyncrasies, the coexistence of poverty and prosperity, regressiveness and modernity, the glitter of bolywood, the "call center" phenomena etc etc.

    with this movie, the west is perhaps feeling the catharsis of having "nailed down" india's reality, with its different shades and contradictions. and that is annoying, because it was a very mediocre movie for me - any way i look at it (what is so special about the jai ho song???). perhaps roger ebert would feel the same annoyance if terminator 2 was taught in JNU under a course in american literature and cinema.

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  11. The article is well articulated as always,the arguments presented sound, and I concur with most of it. But I beg to differ with you on a point that it is not a recognition of India but of A.R.Rahman's individual genius. A country is recognized through its people and their individual brilliance brings as much honour to the country as to their individual selves.
    The award winners deserve all the praise and all the glory, but for a country which makes a bid each time at the Oscars and returns empty handed a deluge of Oscars to one of its most loved and respected musicians is indeed a reason to celebrate and feel proud that it is us who are blessed with his unparalleled genius.

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  12. I saw the movie and there is nothing gr8 in it from our perspective ( read indians who see slums every time they go to Acsendas :P )
    The people of India are of the opinion that India is on the verge of becoming an economic super power and are angry at the portrayal of India as a poor country. India is a poor country. We are no doubt growing and will become a developed country but that is not happening in the near future.
    Also I would like to point out that the press was angry when the film was made and released and nominated but after winning the Oscars they are now reveling in the glory and now India is gr8 bcoz an "Indian" movie won at the Oscars.
    @ Ajey: Saw Milk. Very boring movie :P

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  13. @Ebrahim: Thanks for the comment.. Loved the 'Indian Auteur' blog! :)


    @Pankaj: Very thoughtful and well put comment.

    Agree with your first para. The idea that the west is congratulating itself for having 'nailed' down India's complexities is interesting. I'm sure thats one part of the movie's appeal, for western audiences.

    But imagine you watch a movie that shows some universally relatable story (the underdog overcoming odds to find true love) that uses an extremely exotic culture (say, African, or South American) in a very creative way. The movie entertains while displaying the exoticity of the culture. So, while the story might be simple, or even mediocre, the background and context elevate it to a higher level. Think of any great foreign language film you've liked. Did not the movie's depiction of the culture of the time and place it was set in make a big difference?

    And I agree that 'Jai Ho' is a very non-descript song from ARR. He has scores of songs that have been way way better.

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  14. @Maverick: Thanks :)

    Movies, music or any art is subjective. There can be no definite rules or parameters of defining their worth. When over 1 billion people love and adulate ARR's music, why is there a need to feel so happy that the west has only now recognized his genius? I'll agree that in objective criteria, like sports, it is a matter of national pride when an Indian athlete wins. But do all our classical music greats become any lesser just because the west cannot appreciate them?

    @Tanmay: Yup, the media will sway whichever way the wind is blowing..

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