The recent success of “Slumdog Millionaire” at the Oscars have resurfaced a new crisis that has often plagued us, the people of India and Indian origin. Well, I should possibly qualify that statement by saying that not everybody is complaining. In fact the slum dwellers are celebrating the Oscar win as their won victory. It is only those people who feel insecure of their reality has been complaining the most by accusing that these artists and film makers are making millions by exploiting the poverty of India. Many have been offended by the film’s title “Slumdog” as a derogatory comment on the slum dwellers. Some have even moved to the court and demanded that the film be re-titled. Some have been organizing protest rallies and meetings to awaken the masses against the western exploitation of our poverty. However, such accusation have not been made only against the western film makers. Satyajit Ray was criticized several times for winning awards by displaying the poverty of India to the international audience. They complain that films like “Slumdog” do not portray the real India. India is not only tattered slums and undernourished villages – it is also the skyscrapers, the multi-nationals, SENSEX and the vast middle class for which the entire world is trying to set up their stores in India. But is it the true India?
I guess it is a moot point to attribute such labels to a country as large and complex as India. Trying to describe it in any simple terms is like those three blind men who tried to describe an elephant. Any attempt to portray India using simple motifs like slums or villages is just that, nothing more. But art is not just labels and stamps and no work of art should be viewed as such. “Pather Panchali”, “Ashani Sanket” were not about poverty but about the spirit of humanity. Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” is not about slums, it is about the spirit of the characters, their hopes, and their dreams to succeed in an environment that works against them. An artists role is not to provide solutions to problems, but to use his/her art as a mirror and hold it in front of us such that we can see ourselves in a different light.
I don’t claim that “Slumdog” is the best film ever made, but it is indeed a good film, a thoroughly enjoyable film that does expose some of the unpleasant realities of Indian cities. It even reminded me of a novel we read when I was a child, “Maa Ami Ashok” (Mother, I am Ashok”), a heart wrenching tale about a young boy who was kidnapped by the anti-socials who used to cripple the children and force them to beg on city streets. It was hard to believe that such ghastly things can happen then, as it is now. But the human spirit can overcome any hurdles as long as it has the will to succeed, and a dream to pursue.