So Slumdog Millionaire has done it with 8 Academy Awards in the bag including 3 winners from India – AR Rahman, Gulzar and Resul Pookutty. No doubt, there is much jubilation for the winners and hats off to them for their great victory. And of course, the media and the entire country have already gone overboard hailing the victory of ‘our film.’
Hmmm – ‘our film?’ This ‘acknowledging’ of Slumdog Millionaire as our own is typical of us wanting to be attached to a winner to cover our own mediocrity. We have seen this earlier. Before Manoj Night Shyamalan hit the big time with The Sixth Sense (1999), did anyone even acknowledge him as being an Indian? None, not even when he made Praying with Anger (1992) or Wide Awake (1998) since the films made no impact. Suddenly post The Sixth Sense, he became this Indian filmmaker in Hollywood. Just the fact that he was born here was enough to acknowledge him as one of us while him being raised in Philadelphia and having lived practically all his life in the USA became secondary. And even if we do consider him actually Indian, how many of us even know his middle name was actually Nelliyattu and not Night?
We have to understand that Slumdog Millionaire is not an Indian film. It is a fine British-American film whose story is set in India. Consequently, it has been filmed here and used some Indian actors and technicians. Otherwise, it has a British director at the helm, has been written by a British screenwriter and has major technicians like its DoP, Production Designer and Editor from the West. And honestly, even though it works resoundingly well, has been brilliantly shot on location and is extremely well-written and edited, the film doesn’t totally escape the ‘Western viewpoint’ of exotic India. Danny Boyle’s viewpoint – How can you go to India and not dance is further proof of this stereotyping of us and our films. ‘Those Indian musicals’ are what our films are all about to them. We have to understand Bollywood is just some exotic kitsch that is the flavour of the month in the West and nothing more than song and dance to them. Even the nod to our filmmaking in Slumdog Millionaire, the Jai Ho sequence at the end of the film sending the goras into raptures is highly overrated. We have done far better and more innovative choreography in our films. But the positive we have to get out of this Oscar win is that our people who worked on the film did what they had to and delivered. The amazing sound mixing (Resul) shows that our technicians are as good as anyone given the chance. At the same time, great as AR Rahman’s score is, frankly what the West doesn’t know is that he has done far, far better work in films here as has Gulzar Saab. But that’s another matter.
Instead of claiming something not quite ours, it’s high time we look at ourselves in the mirror and within ourselves. We should question ourselves that why is it that the ‘Largest Institute of the Imaginary’ in the world or the largest active film industry today has had just three films making it to the final Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Film – Mother India (1957), Salaam Bombay (1988) and Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001) in its long history of filmmaking. What is it about our films that they fail to break barriers at the International level? And coming back to the Oscars, we have to remember our previous Oscar winners were either for a project that was predominantly British (Bhanu Athaiya for Gandhi (1982)) or one for lifetime achievement (Satyajit Ray).
Maybe Indian cinema needs an eleventh commandment – Thou shall make better films and not covet another country’s film.
Update: Feb 28, 2009: Visited Landmark, a prominent bookshop in Mumbai, the other day. The shelves are full of Vikas Swarup’s novel retitled now as Slumdog Millionaire with a green circle on the cover within which it says previously published as Q & A. I was just gobsmacked.