The release of Slumdog Millionaire “will be a test of the country’s tolerance,” said K.P. Nayar in the Calcutta Telegraph. Based on the best-selling novel Q&A by Vikas Swarup, the British movie tells the story of a poor orphan from Mumbai who wins big on India’s version of the TV game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The film, which captured four Golden Globes and is tipped for several Oscar wins, has been a hit in the West for weeks, but was released in India just this week. Yet already, “there are rumblings” that Slumdog “has painted an unflattering picture of India” with its scenes of squalor and depravity. On his popular blog, Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan posted some readers’ comments blasting the film and pointing out that even developed countries have “a murky underbelly.”
“I certainly don’t prefer my country being showcased in this manner to the world,” said Cyrus Dastur in the Mumbai Mirror. But we can’t escape reality. Many Westerners now think of Indians not as the starving masses once tended by Mother Teresa but as tech-savvy English-speakers who work in call centers. Actually, fewer than 5 percent of us speak English at all, much less have a white-collar job. The hard truth is that slums “are not actually the underbelly but the potbelly of India.” Unlike in Western countries, where just a tiny minority of people live in slums, more than “60 percent of India stays in such, and even worse, conditions.”
It’s too bad Bollywood couldn’t make this film, said Shobhaa De in the Delhi Times of India. It took an outsider, director Danny Boyle of Trainspotting fame, to “hold up a mirror to our sordid society.” The last Indian movie to deal with life in the slums, Mira Nair’s 1988 Salaam Bombay, gave a “faux glamorous sheen to a similar subject by romanticizing the lives of Mumbai’s street kids.” Boyle, though, has “unblinkingly shown us the rather hideous face of this devastated metropolis.” Yet he also captured the “lyricism, tenderness, and love under all that grime.” It’s a nuanced picture that Indian filmmakers would do well
We’re getting there, said Namita Bhandare in the Delhi Hindustan Times. That Boyle was able to shoot the film on location in the slums of Mumbai shows that India is growing up. We’ve long been “prickly about our cinematic image.” One director who was making a film about the appalling treatment of widows in 1930s India was denied access to his desired locations and had to shoot in Sri Lanka—even though that film was no reflection on modern-day India. Yet Boyle was “allowed to let it all hang out: beggar gangs that maim children, piles of rotting garbage, cops who assume torture as part of routine interrogation.” It must be that, finally, “we don’t mind films that show our seamier side because we know that the world is also aware of our shinier side.”
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