Saturday, February 28, 2009

Thank You Yet Again, Mr Rushdie

Last year, well before the now-ubiquitously adored Slumdog Millionaire was released, I promised myself that I would not add to the general hysteria. There were two reasons for it: the film promised to push every ideological and political button I have (for the record, it does!); and second, having followed similar mass marketing exercises about India before, I knew that all dissenting voices would be shouted down.

I wasn't wrong. The western media juggernaut has been extraordinary in hyping the film, but also at silencing all alternative opinion about the film. Much of British and American media in any case refuses to let an Indian writer/journalist comment on issues linked to India: our best hope recourse is to get a generally clue-less British-Indian or Indian-American holding forth in a manner that consistently repeats the immigration myth that so many of us from the South Asian subcontinent detest: "West is better, richer, modern; back home is poor, superstitious, backward."

The motives boldly ascribed to such criticism has been simplistic and offensively - albeit cleverly - racially coded: any criticism of the film by Indians must be rooted in nationalist pride and a corollary inferiority complex. And worse still, publications and journalists have declared with complete hubris and ignorance that of course Indians don't make such real movies because they would rather make and watch "escapist Bollywood fare." And to hell with the hundred years of Do Bigha Zameen, Traffic Signal, Chameli, and a hundreds of well made, mainstream, successful Bollywood films about the country's underbelly. Who cares about facts when the white man has spoken!

When the screen legend - and in my mind, one of the few Indians with the credibility and stature - to make the point, mildly took issue with the film, he was pilloried. Western journalists who knew little of Bachchan's trajectory and work, declared that he was "jealous" because he hadn't been included in the film; that he was a has-been; that he was delusional. Under the onslaught, Bachchan withdrew his very valid although poorly formulated remarks.

Which is why I am so grateful for Salman Rushdie's piece today in the Guardian. And once again must thank him for saying what many of us have wished to say but have known that it shall be shouted down, mocked, dismissed:

"What can one say about Slumdog Millionaire, adapted from the novel Q&A by the Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup and directed by Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan, which won eight Oscars, including best picture? A feelgood movie about the dreadful Bombay slums, an opulently photographed movie about extreme poverty, a romantic, Bollywoodised look at the harsh, unromantic underbelly of India - well - it feels good, right? And, just to clinch it, there's a nifty Bollywood dance sequence at the end. (Actually, it's an amazingly second-rate dance sequence even by Bollywood's standards, but never mind.) It's probably pointless to go up against such a popular film, but let me try.

The problems begin with the work being adapted. Swarup's novel is a corny potboiler, with a plot that defies belief: a boy from the slums somehow manages to get on to the hit Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and answers all his questions correctly because the random accidents of his life have, in a series of outrageous coincidences, given him the information he needs, and are conveniently asked in the order that allows his flashbacks to occur in chronological sequence. This is a patently ridiculous conceit, the kind of fantasy writing that gives fantasy writing a bad name. It is a plot device faithfully preserved by the film-makers, and lies at the heart of the weirdly renamed Slumdog Millionaire. As a result the film, too, beggars belief.

It used to be the case that western movies about India were about blonde women arriving there to find, almost at once, a maharajah to fall in love with, the supply of such maharajahs being apparently endless and specially provided for English or American blondes; or they were about European women accusing non-maharajah Indians of rape, perhaps because they were so indignant at having being approached by a non-maharajah; or they were about dashing white men galloping about the colonies firing pistols and unsheathing sabres, to varying effect. Now that sort of exoticism has lost its appeal; people want, instead, enough grit and violence to convince themselves that what they are seeing is authentic; but it's still tourism. If the earlier films were raj tourism, maharajah-tourism, then we, today, have slum tourism instead. In an interview conducted at the Telluride film festival last autumn, Boyle, when asked why he had chosen a project so different from his usual material, answered that he had never been to India and knew nothing about it, so he thought this project was a great opportunity. Listening to him, I imagined an Indian film director making a movie about New York low-life and saying that he had done so because he knew nothing about New York and had indeed never been there. He would have been torn limb from limb by critical opinion. But for a first world director to say that about the third world is considered praiseworthy, an indication of his artistic daring. The double standards of post-colonial attitudes have not yet wholly faded away."

Thank you, Sir Salman!


  1. Hello, I left a comment on your red room site. I'm glad to have found you and will order your books. I'm pleased to read your comments on Slumdog.
    All best, Kathryn

  2. Great comment, but the only point you must have considered, but seem to have missed, is that even though there have been some great Hindi movies about poverty in India - none of them have had mainstream distribution across Europe and the US. The commentators in Europe have not all been entirely in favour of Slumdog - the Times called it poverty porn. Even if the plot of Slumdog is a complete fantasy, it surely gives India and Indian film-makers a chance with an audience that might usually consider India to be little more than spicy food and call centres... the film has some merits.

  3. Hi Mark: I did consider that point but that is an entirely different post. The politics and economics of why Indian films dont get mainstream distribution is a complex one - and I am familiar with the issues involved. Its best treated in a longer, more serious space than a blog post.
    While SDM did focus attention on filmmaking in India, I am sceptical of its impact for "crossing over." I will thoughts but will wait to see how correct my judgement is before writing about it.