(This column, which argues that over-the-top rejoicing of the Oscar success of the film Slumdog Millionaire might desensitise us to poverty, was published in DNA edition dated February 23, 2009.)
There was a supreme moment of television irony on Monday, but I suspect it was lost on even the announcer who was so much a part of it. Right in the middle of breathlessly announcing the runaway success of Slumdog Millionaire at the Oscars, the announcer paused for a “quick look at some other headlines”. And without missing a beat, she raced through a story about an outbreak of hepatitis cases in Gujarat that had, by last count, claimed over 40 lives. After about 30 fleeting seconds addressing that minor public health distraction, she was back to her hyperbolic – and borderline-hysterical – reportage of “India’s shining moment” at the Oscars.
That, pretty much, was the theme for the day: over-the-top rejoicing of the enormous success of a film that holds up a mirror to the grinding poverty amidst us, and seeing it somehow as a symbol of “shining India”, without adequate application of mind to the real-life epidemics that thrive in our cities, which are rooted in that self-same poverty, and which – truth to tell – project an image of India that’s far from flattering.
Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely loved the film, and have been arguing passionately in its defence with those hypersensitive souls who claim that it projects an excessively negative image of India. To my mind, it appears to be a reasonably honest portrayal of one slice of urban India – and of the harsh life in those nether regions that exist outside the range of our normal vision as we go through our latte-laced lives. And even if diplomat-author Vikas Swarup has taken liberties with some “urban legends” – such as, for instance, the deliberate blinding of child beggars – that’s the licence that any writer of fiction has. And if director Danny Boyle gets his kicks – and his accolades – by getting his protagonists to roll in human excreta, well, good luck to him; in any case, he’s done it before, in Trainspotting.
It’s also true that the whole run-up to the Oscars, and the awards function itself, gave us much to feel good about: A.R. Rahman’s double-whammy (and his speaking a smattering of Tamil at the Oscars!), the sight of the enchanting Frieda Pinto holding herself with a ready wit on the Jay Leno show and on the red carpet, the emotional acceptance speech from Resul Pookuty, who hails from small-town Kerala and won the Oscar for sound-mixing, and above all else, the endearing sight of those Mumbai street children on the big stage… they were all special moments that caused us to swell with justifiable pride. By conducting themselves with grace on the international stage, they were immaculate Brand Ambassadors for New India.
But the risk with our immoderate and unthinking celebration of Slumdog’s success, without reflecting on the real-life situation it mirrors, is that we may be densensitising ourselves to the poverty amidst us, and may in fact be glorifying it – simply because it earned for us a brief moment of international attention that we yearn for.
In fact, that slide into insensitivity began a while ago, with the organising of “slum tourism” projects that, bizarrely, encourage well-heeled foreign tourists to go on a walkabout of what’s advertised as “Asia’s largest slum”. What ought to have been seen as an appalling failure of urban planning became, overnight, an unashamed showcase project. Our poverty became a slick tourism marketing gimmick.
The problem with such a societal approach is that it increases our tolerance level for things that in any civilised society would be acknowledged as an embarrassing failure of public policy, and should rightfully induce change. Even when it serves as the inspiration for artistic creations that earn us some flattering attention, the poverty and the diseased environment that our real-life slumdogs live in, ought to shame us all. With our unabashed celebration of the commercial and critical success of a film that gives a searing account of this side of society – and our packaging of it as a symbol of “shining India” – we appear to have missed the bigger picture in all this.
For me, though, Slumdog Millionaire gave cause for celebration on another count. The very fact that such a brutally honest novel was written (by a serving officer in the foreign service, no less) and that its film adaptation was allowed to be screened in India without calls for a ban, and that its artistic merits and demerits are being debated civilly, is a tribute to India’s openness as a civil society. It marks a milestone in the maturing of Indian minds, which have in the past not always risen above rank pettiness. Perhaps that’s the real symbol of a “shining India”.