Thursday, February 26, 2009

Jai ho

After the triumph of Slumdog Millionaire at the Oscars, lots have been said and written about the film and lots is still being said and written. I wish to add a penny worth of my reflections too. I have already said in this space that I loved the film. I watched it at a time when it was lesser known, not received any award, and was not released in India. Now when I see it with the hype I still love it, maybe more. I am excited. So, what is it that I want to say?

In the last two days I have been reflecting on people’s reactions to the film after it won eight Oscars. Sadly, apart from the excited TV channels and those they interview, I haven’t had the opportunity to speak to anyone from my day-to-day life echoing the excitement I feel. Some are ambivalent, many critical. This has made me reflect on the act of expressing joy. And I am wondering why the expression of unadulterated joy difficult to come by? Must heady thought play spoilsport?

I dialed a friend immediately after the eighth and last award for the film had been announced. I just wanted to share my elation. “You know there is politics behind this”, was the response from the other end. I said I will call her again later. I was in no mood for politics. Later on I thought. A lot of institutions in this world have politics operating in the background. Politics of war. Politics of hate. Politics of power. Even politics of love. There is politics in our little households and workplaces, everyday. So what’s new if there is politics behind Oscar selections? If whatever politics put a beaming Rubina and Azharuddin – kids who have lived 9-11 years of their life next to open drains – on the Oscar stage, should we condemn that politics?

“Rubina and Azhar being on stage does not change anything. What about the thousands of other people living in slums?” was another opinion that another person expressed. But this is weird. The film is a work of art; it did not start out with the promise of changing anything. It is not a social/political movement. But does it not bring pride to the heart to think that the two kids who acted in the film and live in slums, never attended school in their little life, vulnerable at every point – will now receive formal education and upon reaching the age of 18, will be entitled to a sum of 25 lakh each to pursue higher education. I support the fact that they were not paid huge sums of money to act in the film – the money which under all probability would have been passed on to their caretakers. Now at least things are set and set in their best interests – the right to receive education.

Also, doesn’t the achievement of kids living in slums do something to our class mentality? For example, does it not bring to light the ingenuity and brilliance of people living in the “slums”. Doesn’t the fact that the conditions of birth can be changed, triumph?

Some of the people I spoke to said they are “ashamed” of Indian poverty having been shown in the film and have “it” (poverty) receive international awards. In other words they are ashamed of the “slums”. Ashamed of the people who live in the slums. But what right have we to be ashamed of anyone? This is showing sheer disrespect and sheer arrogance. We are not ashamed to hire domestic help from these very slums. Slums are a part of India and will remain so till skewed economic/social/development policies rule the land. Why does a single cricketer earn crores for his presence on the field for a few hours and the thousands of Rubinas and Azharuddins struggle for the basic amenities of life?

I was surprised that even A R Rehman’s recognitions were not wholeheartedly accepted. “He has composed much better music”, came as a whiff of opinion. But then no Tamil or Hindi film he composed for has been nominated for the Oscars. So where does the question of him receiving an Oscar before this arise? One person even said that Ilaiyaraja, Guru to Rehman should have been awarded instead!

Now, before this gets hilarious, I must stop. There were many other observations on similar lines and when I think about them, I want to ask the same question I started off with. Why is the expression of unadulterated joy difficult to come by? Must heady thought play spoilsport? I hope we are not denying ourselves the right to feel pure joy and revel in the success of people without asking too many politically correct questions.


Munchmany said...

Straight from the heart post, Amrita!

Me and my husband did a tap dance when Rehman won the Oscar.

In the same boat as Rubina and Azhar is little Pinki whose smile i hope will never fade away.

Vj said...

It's a shame! this country can't even celebrate a proud moment.

Irony isn't it! The song was written by a Muslim, sung by a Hindu and choreographed by a Christian. This is true essence of India and a British man noticed that.

Every great city be it Moscow, London, New York or London has an underbelly and a grotesque subculture. Each of them have homeless people and sprawling underworld. Mumbai is no different.

Slumdog is about faith, hope and love and I have to give it to Danny Boyle for picking our gems Rehman, Resul and Gulzar and present them to the world. It was long overdue. As you said, the child artists have a secure feature now thanks to the film.

I saw Benjamin Button, the reader. Both are fantastic movies in their own right but Slumdog was clearly a winner for me.In the end,it truly deserved the Oscar!

P.S- I recommend City of God
(Cidade de Deus) to people who want to understand why west loved Slumdog the way they did

Vandya said...

The problem with us Indians is that we see everything critically and have double standards. I think Slumdog is a masterpiece and controversies are just side effects of it.

ambrosia said...

Thank you Munchmany, Vj, and Vandya for dropping by and for sharing your views. I am glad to know that we share similar sentiments about the film! An interesting thing happened yesterday in our client call. This client is German and they started the call by discussing about the film! They thought it is tremendous and at times like these an amazing sense of pride takes over and although we had nothing to really do with the film, we feel we are caretakers in some way! Munchmany, I too hope that Pinky’s smile will never fade away. Vj, I agree with you that the film is about “faith, hope, and love” and I really think that critics are trying to read in too much and build too many unjustified expectations. Vandya, double standards, sure! Tell me about it!  Perhaps it is necessary to reason and analyse but at occasions like these “analysis” sounds so immature and silly.

A very cool cat said...

I'm afraid, Ambrosia, that I am one of the people critical of the film. No, not because it's allegedly 'poverty porn', but because I genuinely did not like the film. I honestly thought it was ordinary, the acting, apart from the smallest children, Anil Kapoor and Irrfan, ranging from mediocre to bad, the narration full of holes; technically it was great, and I fully endorse the Oscars won for editing, sound mixing and yes, I love the fact that Rahman won two Oscars - but all in all, it was for me a very disappointing film, more so because it came from the director of Trainspotting. And I truly fail to understand the hype.

I do, however, agree with you on the issues of slums and children that you've raised - it's absurd of people to be ashamed to the slums, and the 'slumdogs'. If we want the West to stop focusing on India's poverty, should we not do something to end that poverty instead? Airbrushing our lives don't get rid of problems, and it's unfair of people to expect the world to not care just because we don't. And yes, I am glad that Rubina and Azharuddin have a shot at a better life; I'm glad they were given the chance to be present at the Oscars - I don't quite understand, though, why they're not present in every photograph taken of the children, and why they were not interviewed on the red carpet when the other, upper middle-class, English-speaking children were.

But I think I'm happiest for little Pinki.

MoD said...

A good cinema is a piece of art and the criteria for any piece of art is that it must have the qualities of truth, beauty and goodness (Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram).

Slumdog is a miserable failure on the above counts. It has not adheared to the original story, which does not mean any offence. It will not serve any goodness, except giving false hopes to the slum children and giving another whip into the hands of the western world to lash Indians with.

In these days of economic crises, racial hatred and intolerance for outsiders, what if an NRI has to hear being called a slumdog!!Would it not be humiliating, inciting anger and violence? Does Danny Boyle understand Indian ethos. Even pet owners do not relish if their dog is called a dog. Which country has no slums. Would anyone dare to call the children living there, slumdog? So was'nt the film mocking Indian poverty and has taken liberty to show down India in the eyes of the western world, ignoring its many achievements and fast growth in every field.

Satyajit Roy also chose to depict India's poverty in Pother Panchali, doing full justice to the great literary work of Bibhuti Bhushon Bondopadhyay. He did it with love and so artistically that it touched a cord in every Indian heart. It has Truth, Beauty and Goodness, therefore Shaswat (eternal source of joy). In my opinion, Slumdog Millionaire is bizarre.

A Curved Line said...

Being one of the people who tried to dampen your spirits on the night when the nation was ecstatic, i think i need to comment too. I fully endorse MoD.I did not see any beauty in the film. Reality it was not. So what was the film about? I agree it was good story telling. But surely just that cant be the reason for all this hype.

If i had watched the film at any other time i would have perhaps said -ok that was an interesting film. But i watched it after it was already hyped. The answers to my question - what was the reason for the hype?- was not in the film. it was located elsewhere. in people's perspectives generated by intelligent marketing. the film as it was talked about, just did not exist.

Yet i experienced unadulterated joy when i saw Rahman on the stage. I had goose bumps cause i could almost feel that he had them. I did not question whether he deserved it. i was just happy because he was so happy. period. I am happy that the child artistes' life might now change. i would love to follow up their life paths from this point and would rejoice if the change continues. But that cannot be attributed to slum dog can it. The film did not aim to change their lives. it was not on Danny Boyle's agenda. it just happened as a corollary. they have their own routes to destiny, independent of Danny Boyle or slum dog. So when i say that the film failed to touch me i am not negating that some good things did happen on the side.

Accha, it could have been called Q & A like the book could it not. Danny Boyle was faced with the questions- now would Q & A sell? is it sensational enough? Now what would be sensational? A good name to ride publicity - both good and bad - on. And he settled on Slumdog. What do you think might have favoured in his mind for the word Slumdog?

Why should I, a reasonably intelligent thinking person, not ask these questions? Its not my fault that Danny Boyle failed to touch with me with the only tool that he ought to have used to touch me with - his film. His film did not speak to me.

KD said...

When I saw the film, I did not know who it was made by, I did not know its history or anything about it. I saw it and enjoyed it. Yes, there were many things that did not tie up, there seemed to be many loose ends - but then most commercial masaala films are like that. I ignored it. I was even moved to tears at the end.

Then I started reading about all these posturings in the newspapers. Some lambasted it as peddling poverty while some praised the makers as having the courage to show the underbelly of India. Some said - it took a westerner to do that.

And I thought - what?? Its just a masaala film, a figment of some one's imagination, a piece of dream. A potboiler. An attempt to put everything in it - torture, amnesty international, communal riots, forced beggary, forced prostitution, mafia - what not.

And the film just seemed to move from one to another - each crisis getting solved in bollywood hollywood style.

Did it show the struggle of the characters? No. Did it show - how suddenly the child artists could spin those fantastic stories in english while acting as guide to Taj Mahal? Did you not wonder how the hero could gain easy entry to the call center, speak and understand the language of instruction so nicely? Did you not wonder, how and why the hero could be arrested while he was competing for that 1 million? I know the system in India is corrupt - but so corrupt that a person is arrested just because he is giving all the right answers?

I think when we first see it, we are attracted to it because of the element - that life's experiences helped the hero to answer all the questions - perhaps because of this idea of 'destiny'.

But the film did not show struggle of kids living in slums. No, it does not show the 'karma' part. It media hype says - that the film is about hope that dreams will come true. I beg to differ. After this film I saw - 'Salaam Bombay' and it made my stomach churn. I took my time to see it. I would put Salaam Bombay and City of GOd in the same plain.

This does not mean that I am not happy that Rahman, Resul, Gulzar won awards. I am happy that Rubina, Azharuddin got a chance to be in hollywood, disney world. And I am glad to know that now they have flats to their name.

But the award for the best film - I am not sure.

But can I ask - why all these come after the film won awards? What if the film had not won any awards, would the children have received the support from the film-makers? from the indian goverment?

All this post awards make the cynic in me think - that yes, perhaps it has something to do with publicity and marketing...

At the end, friends here are seeing the film and saying - so is 'slumdog' all about truth? What do I say to them? What is true in that film and what is not?

Vj said...

Truth be told, the movie was not intended for the Indian audience in the first place. When 20th Century Fox pumped money into this project, I am sure, they had a clear agenda to release it into American and European markets. Although the theme was Indian but it was clear that the movie should cater to western sensblities. It didn't surprise me that the protagonist spoke chaste British English, waved $100 notes. As I am not surprised when I see a hero/heroine break into a dance just after a funeral, with 40 accomplices, in a typical Bollywood movie. A director does what he think will help his product sell. I don't mind them taking creative liberties and deviate from the plot.

In my line of work, I've been talking with Britons and Americans for years and I can tell that they acknowledge India as an emerging market, economic superpower, full of intellectuals, land of extraordinary culture as much as they would call it the land of slums, cows, snake charmers and corruption.

I can't understand people appreciating the crap that comes out of the American factory with such alarming regularity - The spidermans, the batmans, the monstroueous 100 legged creatures, the anacondas. Nobody asks for any logic why every catastrophe, every meteorite, every alien attack happens in NYC. I think if there is any industry that is full of sterotypes, it is Hollywood. In the end, a movie is just a movie. It doesn't represnt anything.

KD said...

Just wanted to share this will all of you....

Today we were having lunch together - three thai friends, a canadian, a non-resident bangladeshi and me. The thai friends said - lets watch slumdog today...and there started an animated discussion.

We south asians asked the others - why do they want to see it? They said - because its 'slumdog' - because its an indian film that won so many awards - because it represents the real india, because we heard in news that one kids' mother wanted to be re-united with her daughter (rubina i presume)...

We south asians had our own discussion about it - much of which has already been said in this post and comments. As with regard to the debate around it - my other colleague explained it by asking - "have you read Amartya Sen's - Argumentative Indian? We people from the sub-continent can have a debate on almost everything under the sun...every issue always generates a vociferous discussion - there are so many divergent views and opinions".

I think we managed to get the Thai friends more interested in seeing the film. If they do see it, and if you are interested, I will let you know their response...

ambrosia said...

Thank you everyone – Munchmany, Vj, Vandya, Cool Cat, MoD, Curved Line, and KD for sharing your thoughts! The discussion has become very interesting! I have come to believe that in this country at least, the film has either been liked/loved or not liked by the people who have seen it, which include all of us here. It is clear that we have different takes on the film. For me, the film still remains a powerful narration of a boy with a vulnerable childhood whose life circumstances lead him to successfully answer questions at a games show. Here I might have asked why the quizmaster is asking questions to which the boy’s life is related. But I am not asking because for me that is not important to ask – to my mind the questions are a metaphor that brings out poignant details from the boy’s life and shapes his character. I feel the questions were the soul of the movie and whatever happened in filmy style thereafter is again a metaphor to say that every cloud has a silver lining. Looking at it this way, for me the film is beautiful. I am sure I would have enjoyed it similarly had it been set in the slums of another land revolving around the life story of the people in that land, had it been told in a equally engaging style.

The discussion here shows that we all like or not like something based on our own set of life experiences, interests, value-sets, emotions, sense of aesthetics, etc. I think it is fair that we should think differently because all of us are different from each other. What is not fair is the question that I ask in my post – “Why is the expression of unadulterated joy difficult to come by?” It is clear that joy cannot be felt and expressed if there no “felt” joy. And with the reservations some of you have, I think it is unfair of me to ask why you do not feel “unadulterated joy” as I do? The fact that we are not the same has been forcefully brought home to me through your views. This is an important realization that I want to thank everybody for :-)