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Slumdog Millionaire’s Indian Critics


WASHINGTON—Almost three months ago, I wrote that “if there is any justice, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’—a $15-million movie that the distributors were dubious about, and a third of which is in Hindi—will be nominated by the Motion Picture Academy for Best Picture. And go on to win.”

Naturally, I beg to differ with those Indian activists and intellectuals who have decried the movie as demeaning to their country because of its portrayal of poverty and violence, its use of child actors, and a scene in which a group of Hindu fanatics attacks a Muslim community.

One example of this balderdash is a lawsuit filed by Tapeshwar Vishwakarma, who represents a charity and claims that the human rights of the slum dwellers have been violated. Another high-profile protester has excoriated the Indians associated with the production for accepting the use of the word “slumdog.” Shyamal Sengupta, from the Whistling Woods International Institute in Mumbai, calls the film “a white man’s imagined India” and “a poverty tour.”

How ironic, in the light of these highbrowed attacks, that, according to numerous news accounts, residents of the slums of Mumbai celebrated the triumph of Danny Boyle’s movie at the Oscars as their own. They are the ones who have it right.

The critics forget a few facts. The film is based on the novel “Q&A” by Vikas Swarup, an Indian diplomat. Although the director and the scriptwriter, both British, made changes in their adaptation of the story, they kept the essentials: An Indian slum orphan is arrested for getting too many answers right in a TV quiz show and the subsequent narration of his journey reveals to us that his correct answers did not come from cheating but from street wisdom picked up in a succession of experiences that attest to his instinct for survival. Not to mention all the on- and off-camera Indians associated with the movie, who feel proud of their role in it.

Anyone who thinks Boyle set out to stereotype Indian slum grit clearly has not seen the director’s depiction of Edinburgh’s urban squalor in “Trainspotting,” a 1996 film. In fact, one of the elements that make Boyle’s treatment of moral degradation more tolerable and realistic in “Slumdog Millionaire” is the use of contained humor and bright color.

As for the happy ending that some in India have criticized as a gimmick to make the sordid story more palatable to an international audience, have they forgotten that Bollywood, the Mumbai-based Indian film industry, thrived on rags-to-riches stories and soapy romances before it largely turned to gangster movies in the 1980s? The force of “uplifting” Indian filmmaking has been influencing the industry worldwide for some time. A decade ago, director Baz Luhrmann, credited with the revival of the musical film in the West with “Moulin Rouge,” acknowledged his debt to Bollywood musicals of the ’60s and ’70s.

In today’s global era, the cross-fertilization among national industries renders the word “national” almost meaningless. When we learn that Steven Spielberg has decided to partner with Bollywood’s Reliance ADA Group in order to fund his departure from Paramount/Viacom, we are witnessing the irrelevance of nationality in the movie industry.

Perhaps one of Boyle’s sins in the eyes of some of his Indian critics is that he does not play on Western guilt. His depiction of the Dharavi slum, with its beggar mafias who blind little boys, is revealing of the dark side of a city that in recent years has been associated with the wonders of globalization. But there is no political statement here. This is not, as some leftist critics have wistfully argued, a denunciation of foreign investment and the market reforms that started in 1991. It is simply a crucial part of the storytelling. If we wanted to squeeze a political message out of it, it would be the renunciation of victimhood and the defense of the individual against the forces that attempt to make the film’s protagonist, Jamal Malik, a peg in the mechanism of local collectivist exploitation.

The charge that “Slumdog Millionaire” exploits Mumbai’s poverty is so absurd that by the same token Charles Dickens’ entire body of work would have to be invalidated as a defamation of 19th-century England.

Like all accomplished stories, “Slumdog Millionaire” is probably resonating with audiences because it gives a glimpse of complex truths and tells us something about ourselves that we had trouble defining. In that sense, the Motion Picture Academy did not honor a “foreign” film, but one strangely familiar.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa is Senior Fellow of The Center on Global Prosperity at The Independent Institute. He is a native of Peru and received his B.S.C. in international history from the London School of Economics. His Independent Institute books include Global Crossings: Immigration, Civilization, and America, Lessons From the Poor: Triumph of the Entrepreneurial Spirit, The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty, and Liberty for Latin America.

(c) 2009, The Washington Post Writers Group

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