The Satyam fiasco is making news in the US even as Slumdog Millionaire, running in cinema halls here for some time now, continues to be hailed as the “feel-good” movie in a year that saw the world plunged into one of its gloomiest financial crises.
Ostensibly a rags to riches story, maybe even a reinvention in an Indian setting of the American Dream, it has been praised for its raciness, its chutzpah, its ebullient bare-all exposé of life in the big bad city of Mumbai. It won five Critics Choice awards.
The film is directed by British filmmaker Danny Boyle, the screenplay written by Simon Beaufoy who has hits like The Full Monty and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day to his credit.
According to Wikipedia (yes, Slumdog has made it there already) Beaufoy made three research trips to India for the purpose and interviewed street children. The primary source for the storyline was Q and A, a novel by diplomat Vikas Swarup. There is no information on how many trips Swarup made to Mumbai before he wrote the novel or whether he lived there for any length of time. But none of this should matter against a bestseller backdrop that includes the likes of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, Shantaram, and The Death of Vishnu.
On the verge of winning the jackpot in a TV quiz show, Jamal Malik is arrested and tortured at the local police station on charges of cheating. Jamal is made of sterner stuff than his tormentors expected — a Browningesque persona who stays bloody but unbowed under the bludgeoning dealt him by the inspector and his sidekick sergeant. The inspector’s cat-and-mouse game continues as flashbacks bring us up to date on
Jamal’s journey up to this point. “Bizarrely plausible”, says the inspector at the end of Jamal’s story — a comment the general response to the film here would also appear to bear out. Jamal is released and returns to the studio to win the jackpot.
And what a story Jamal’s proves to be. Two brothers growing up in a Mumbai slum. Communal riots that leave them orphaned. Abduction by a beggars’ mafia engaged in picking up street children and blinding them for profit. A miraculous escape to north India and a brief career as tourist scamsters. The return to Mumbai to look for Latika, a childhood love. Betrayal and angst, the two brothers going separate ways till a grandiose gesture at the end reunites Jamal with Latika even as her gangster lover shoots his brother Salim dead in a bathtub filled with money.
Individually, some of the details are realistic enough; aspects of Mumbai’s underbelly. My problem is that the movie doesn’t go far enough in its treatment of them, making for a flat, somewhat questionable view. So, in Slumdog’s Mumbai a poor child will leap into a pool of shit and emerge covered with it, run through a jostling mob and get close enough to a superstar to obtain an autographed picture.
Orphaned slum children switch abruptly from Hindi to speaking English in accents that cannot be faulted. A call centre employee can with impunity hand over his switchboard to a chaiwallah who is able to tap into the database within seconds and track down his brother. The host and audience of a popular television quiz show are boorishly united in humiliating a participant because he is poor. And progress means ugly skyscrapers, crime and sleaze.
Many of us who live in Mumbai hold no brief for its negatives of greed, inequitable distribution of wealth and unplanned development. We battle these as best we can and hope for change. We know that implicit in the details is the dialectic that gives them their complexity and points to Mumbai’s other, better soul — one that has resisted unimaginable calamities both natural and man-made, refused to allow its cosmopolitan essence to be destroyed, and shown itself determined to remain unique. A city in which sensitivity coexists with despair, commitment with indifference, activism with inaction, and humanism with the inhumane.
Slumdog Millionaire ignores this complexity, making the willing suspension of disbelief difficult to sustain. In art as elsewhere the selection of details may be a universal prerogative. But the final product is open to critical examination and even a degree of scepticism and doubt. After the twists and turns of Boyle’s passage to India, Slumdog’s eventual victory comes at a price. When the selective manipulation of Third World squalor can make for a feel-good movie in a dismal year, the global village has a long way to go.
The writer is currently visiting professor at Northwestern University, USA.