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Slumdog: Mumbai is really like that
Aarti Iyer | February 24, 2009 13:44 IST
I invited an American friend to see Slumdog Millionaire [Images] with me during its limited release in New York in November with some trepidation. Not knowing anything about the movie other than that it was set in India and received positive early reviews, I was expecting the usual Bollywood fare -- beautiful but long dance numbers, over-dubbed action sequences, and unrealistically happy endings.
Previous attempts to acclimatise my Western friends to Bollywood cinema had been less than successful -- we couldn't stop cracking jokes during Aishwarya Rai's [Images] Bride and Prejudice [Images]. Even my more dedicated friends couldn't make it through the hour-and-a-half cricket match in Lagaan [Images].
To my surprise, however, the audience of that sold-out show consisted not only of Indians, but people of every background and every age. By the film's end, I understood why -- Slumdog Millionaire is one of those rare movies that -- in its handling of profound issues and questions -- naturally brings people together. It may have been set in India, but Jamal's story of determination, devotion, and trust in the good in life, despite evidence to the contrary, are themes that resonate with all of us, regardless of where we were brought up and where we are today.
Since November, Slumdog Millionaire has been released across the country, with more success than I -- and perhaps even any of those involved -- could have anticipated. My excitement is tempered, however, by the recent backlash from Indian icons like director Priyadarshan [Images] and actress Preity Zinta [Images]. Priyadarshan called the film a 'cheap, trashy, mediocre version' of earlier, more worthwhile films by Salim-Javed, and expressed anger that Indians would celebrate a film created by 'a white man' that depicts Mumbai [Images] as 'a wasteland'.
Preity Zinta, on the other hand, believes Slumdog Millionaire viewers will assume India is a dirty, poverty-stricken place Incidentally this comes from the lead actress of Kya Kehna, a successful movie about a pregnant single teenager, and Kal Ho Naa Ho -- but, er, no intelligent viewer would assume all women in India are pregnant by 18 and love to disco.
Of course it's not easy to accept that one of the first widely critically-acclaimed films focused on India is precisely about some of its faults. Poverty, child abuse, gangs, and corruption exist in India; just as they exist in any country. It simply appears that most successful films in India shy away from these themes. If an Indian is willing to pay hard-earned money to see a movie, he wants escape and entry to a world that exists only in the movie theater -- hence the beautiful actors and actresses in beautiful clothes, in well-choreographed dance numbers and difficulties that only extend to unpleasant mothers-in-law.
Perhaps it takes a movie as powerful as Slumdog Millionaire for Indians both residing in India and abroad to recognize the evils that plague it still, and take action to stop it. Like 2004's Supersize Me opened America's eyes to the harmful health effects of fast food and Crash helped redress issues of race and intolerance, Slumdog Millionaire may bring about positive social changes in India. While it is difficult to watch what the children in Slumdog Millionaire had to endure, we may take solace in the fact that there are real children across the world that we have the power to help.
Still, to dwell on the horrors Jamal, Salim, and Latika underwent is to miss the movie's message. Every moment in Jamal's life, even the most heartbreaking ones, had a purpose and reason -- in a literal sense, because they served as answers to the game show's answers, but metaphorically, because they shaped who he became, and tested his love so that it endured, all the stronger.
When faced with a difficulty in our own lives -- whether it be loss or injustice or betrayal -- it's inspiring to believe that even our pain can lead to our happiness. More than a story of squalor or sorrow, it's a story of perseverance and faith -- and indeed, what better city to serve as a backdrop than Mumbai, a city that has seen so much in recent months only to emerge resiliently.
It is for that reason that when people ask me, after watching the movie, whether Mumbai is "really like that", I give a qualified "yes." The particulars of a movie are never as important as the message that stays with you long after you leave the theater.
Can I remember the name of the character who ran the children's orphanage, or the leader of the gang that cut Latika across the face? No. But what I do remember, and will remember, is what the Indian spirit is all about.
Aarti, 18, studies at Columbia University.