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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Slumdog's Prism

Wow eight. I know, old news now, but I always have a craving to see it again. Apart from the upward facing thumbs, stars, nods of approval, and gold sculpted figures, I have encountered a myriad of curious negative sentiment over the past few months (I'll get to that in a minute).

I enjoyed the movie, and thought it was impossibly fulfilling and uplifting, but I can't point to any single element that was truly outstanding on its own. While the kids went well beyond their roles, I can't say that there was a truly great, unique acting performance (no real star power to begin with either), like Leo/Jack/Alec in "The Departed," Ed Norton in "American History X," or Charlize Theron in "North Country" or "Monster," Paul Giamatti in "Sideways," not to mention Denzel in "Training Day." Additionally, while gathering great acclaim, the music was mediocre, falling short of A.R. Rahman's previous catalog and not fully drawing from the musician's reservoir of raw talent. While no one component was extraordinary, their assembly certainly was, with the storyline, music, screenplay, and camera work reinforcing one another— greater than the sum of its parts in this case, one plus one equaled three. What was considered to be an "impossibly shallow" plot came to out-layer initial expectations. Despite the individual stand alone shortcomings, at the end of it all I embraced a feeling of remarkable joy and promise that I haven’t had after any previous movie I can remember. One can easily envision a sea of the beamiest faces come credit roll.

The success was somewhat foreseen, especially with all the hype and endless positive press and projections. And the broad appeal— the underdog story of disadvantaged, orphaned chai-wallah and the idea that children did not have to forever strive to be Amitabh Bachan, but they just to be themselves. As with any film, I've come across the entire spectrum of opinions from friends, peers, and uncles and aunties, and many reviews from lukewarm to gloating. The majority of negative response stemmed from the fact that many felt that the circumstances were unrealistic and the ending far fetched. Or, "I just don't like happy endings." In fact, friends and I would hypothesize whether an alternate ending in which Jamal gets the girl, but loses the money, may have been better.

Along with this, there was a striking amount of negative press inked in newspapers such as India Abroad or Indian/Indian American-community-focused
local northeast publications and digitized on internet forums, blogs, some of which was scathing, denouncing the film's director, Danny Boyle, and stating that "the film should have never been made." What was most curious was the rationale behind the scorn— the film portrayed India in a bad light. I remember a similar sentiment when Mira Nair's "Monsoon Wedding" was released years ago and some, including my family and aunties and uncles, thought that the movie misrepresented India. But, I still never grasped the notion that the storyline and characterization in the movie would convince viewers that Indian culture was rife with hedonists, child molesters, or adulterers. While we all know it to be fruitless to generalize opinions and pass judgment based on a specific instance or depiction, it is also futile to assume that others will do so. The reaction to "Slumdog Millionaire" by some, usually among the older generation Indians or Indians born and raised in India, made me scratch my head. And the Slumdog reaction has much less to do with the movie itself than with a broader notion— a misguided Indian nationalism.

I have heard now that the "West" has seen "Slumdog Millionaire" (not intended to be an expose), it will think that all of India is synonymous with slum life. Questions like "Is India really like that?" may now arise with uncomfortable frequency. Of course, such ignorance exists and is sometimes unchecked in America. I am still surprised to run into people my age in the Northeast who have never eaten Indian food, despite the boundless opportunities at all corners, city or town. But, I have to give those watching the movie the benefit of the doubt. I don’t expect most to now think that India is a vast poorhouse with inescapable danger and depravity. Some viewers may be that stupid and perhaps I set expectations too high or am too forgiving. The inaccurate 7 eleven owner, taxi driver stereotype still persists, but Apu's "The Simpsons" label has surely faded in the last decade as Indians gain clout and spotlight in American modern life. Two extremes bubble up— the ignorance of the "West" and the other side of fervent, blinding, and denying nationalism— and saying the answer lies in between really oversimplifies the interactions between the "West" and India. Both sides are wholly invalid and destructive. In fact, particularly for the next 40 years, Americans and Europeans who fail to truly understand India soon, set free misconceptions, and open arms and doors wider, will also fail to truly flourish to their potential. It is their loss.

At the same time, I believe many Indians carry a na├»ve nationalism that favors impression over progress. I reject the flimsy argument that somehow this is easier for me to say because I was not raised in India or the fact that I was not brought up there does not give me the perspective to speak on Indian nationalism. I love India, and after my last trip in November, I crave to go back there constantly. I can speak infinitely about its beauty and promise, and also can drone about its plights. Ditto with America. One thing's for sure, you can't appease everyone— you can speak only about India's positive and some will claim that you are inventing an emotional response and speak only about the negative and others will claim you are "anti-national." Since when does a critique of one area detract points from the praise in another area or a whole. Since when is pride, self respect a zero-sum game. The fact remains that nationalism and love for country, by no means, entitles one to ignore critical problems or brush them under the rug. It seems as if India's nationalism is still relatively primitive and must shake off its primordial straps, evolve into something more pragmatic and flexible, yet still principled.

Additionally and importantly, now that India is increasingly on the world stage, it cannot have it both ways— be fully open geo-econo-politically, but still only show some of its cards. And, I know that Indians have no qualms about being open; walking on a street in Delhi I can easily see the racks of 50 different newspapers in a stand, with the distaste of local leaders showcased brazenly and democratically.

This is not the place to air out all of India's challenges and disparities. But, related to the topic, classism is surely present, and if you do not think so, then you are either in denial or need a reality check. Additionally, if one believes that Muslims and Dalits are still not marginalized, then one really needs to take a hard, closer look without nationalistic blinders or the veil of Hindu chauvinism. Some will think this is anti-Hindu, but I am a proud Hindu. This is not some first step in a twelve step program. Outside of India, the country is clearly associated with its role in producing engineers, doctors, and scientists; the unbridled growth of the tech sector, bootstrapping the country onto the world scene, has made ever more prevalent the Indian entrepreneur and media icon. However, as Nandan Nilekani writes in his eloquent book "Imagining India," inside India, the view varies dramatically depending on where you stand.

This is more than a popularized Indo Western world of Sanjay Gupta, Kal Penn, Aziz Ansari, Atul Gawande, Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Naveen Andrews, M. Night Shyamalan, Bobby Jindal, Jhumpa Lahiri, Anita Desai, and Fareed Zakaria, it is also a world of Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia, the slum in Mumbai in which the talented children from "Slumdog Millionaire" grew up. No, I don't really have the perspective of the slum as I have never been there. But, neither have most Mumbaikers. Of course, not all is gainsay as there is abundant vibrant progress, especially with private-NGO-based innovations, but the progress will never leave me satisfied as it is tilted all too conspicuously toward the already privileged. Why has light speed growth been so easily opened to the lighted banners, billboards, and urban wonders tied to the rich, but movement for the most basic of needs for the poor has languished for decades up to this day.

A key burden to India's identity is its lack of unity. Nilekani describes in his book the "fractious lines of caste, class, religion, and region." "People begin to see themselves as belonging to their caste or religion first and country second, a dangerous theme in a nation so diverse." Most perceptible, growing up and going to college in America and on visits to India, is the superiority complex between people from Punjab state versus Tamil Nadu state versus Kolkata versus Mumbai versus Kerala state, and on and on and on. What is even the point of this utterly useless divisiveness? We need a more unified nationalism. I find it defeatist and hard to believe that we cannot create a more top-down unity while still preserving regional identities, histories, cultures, and traditions. I am considering a much larger vision of India. This is age old and has been cited as fundamental in Britain's ability to take rule over India during colonialism and India's turtle pace from independence to 1991. I also know it is an elemental issue in India's still evolving self perception.

In the same vein as Albert Einstein, who said that "science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind," openness and criticism without nationalism is lame, and nationalism without openness and criticism is blind. India must adopt an open and constructive nationalism. Yes, the ignorance is present among those who might say "Do people really gouge people's eyes out in India?" but there is also ignorance in the petty denouncement of a perfectly uplifting movie because of entrenched, misguided, and all too self conscious nationalism. The engine has just been started, and India's "demographic dividend" is expected to see its sweet spot in the next 30 years. Now is the time that India— "young, impatient, vital, awake"— brings itself together and looks the "West," as well as its more than 40 million slum dwellers, in the eye.