With headlines like “Bacchan Rubbishes Slumdog” playing alongside the celebrations of AR Rahman's Golden Globe victory and three Oscar nominations, India has reacted to the sensation surrounding Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire with characteristic ambivalence. On the one hand, the country is desperate for the stamp of approval from abroad — which is clear from the almost obsessive deconstruction of its repeated, failed bids for a nod to Bollywood in the best foreign film category of the Oscars. But on the other, there is an anxiety about showing India spots and all.
While Westerners complain that the film may be exploitative “poverty porn,” Indians are worried that it will make the country look dirty. Never mind that many very good Indian films, such as Ram Gopal Varma's Satya and Madhur Bhandarkar's Chandni Bar, have explored similar territory. Those films were intended for Indians — not foreigners who couldn't be trusted to understand that India is also filled with five-star hotels and posh shopping malls. And Indians don't like the idea of a foreigner painting India in a bad light; you can talk trash about your own mother, but when somebody else does it, they're spoiling for a punch in the nose.
It's the kind of story that makes good copy. But I'm not sure that it's all that true. Yes, Indians are unlikely to turn out in droves to see Slumdog, but not because they're offended by the poverty in it. The Indian audience by and large doesn't see any movie without “stars.” And Slumdog is no Spiderman. However, the multiplex audience and chattering classes have hardly been united in disparaging the movie. Even Amitabh Bachchan, who is depicted in Slumdog as the Bollywood star with whom Jamal is obsessed, was incorrectly splashed across headlines for criticizing the movie (thanks to his almost incomprehensible writing on his blog).
Many have seen the film for what it is: A Westerner making a Bollywood “masala movie,” albeit without the songs. And they're taking it in that spirit — as a kind of homage. The critic for the Economic Times writes: “Overall, Slumdog Millionaire is a brilliant and entertaining portrayal of a urban slum urchin, who is on the way to bag a jackpot in the TV show. Considering the fact that over 250 million in India still live below poverty line, the film also gives a shots of urban Indian slum life, which is especially appealing to western audiences. Made with a budget of just $15 million, not even half of Bollywood blockbusters, SlumD, succeeds in strongly conveying its message — no dream is too big.”
The Indian Express suggests that Bollywood — which sent Amir Khan's obviously “wrong for foreigners” Tare Zameen Par to shoot for an Oscar nomination this year, and Bachchan's even more ill-suited Eklavya last year — is looking at Slumdog as a sort of cipher that can help them figure out what the rest of the world wants from India. “While movie buffs were praising Allah Rakkha Rahman’s music in the film, Indian film industry insiders were trying to work out how an Oliver Twist-meets-Richie Rich film shot by a foreigner had captured the imagination of the nation.”
But the Times of India sums it up best: “FORGET the twitter about aggrieved national sentiment. For, Slumdog Millionaire is neither poverty porn nor slum tourism. No, unlike what the desi nationalists' blogosphere claims, it is not a case of the infamous western eye ferreting out oriental squalor and peddling it as the exotic dirt bowl of the east. No, Slumdog Millionaire is just a piece of riveting cinema, meant to be savoured as a Cinderella-like fairy tale, with the edge of a thriller and the vision of an artist. It was never meant to be a documentary on the down and out in Dharavi. And it isn't.”