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Is India still the 'slumdog' for the West?

January 18, 2009 16:49 IST

SlumDog Millionaire has won over the Western audiences with its 'fairy tale in a Mumbai slum' storyline but back home the film has opened up a heated debate about the stereotyped representation of India and Mumbai in the Western films.

Slumdog MillionaireReview 1 | Review 2

None other than Bollywood's Big B, Amitabh Bachchan joined forces with the critics of Slumdog in his blog.

'If Slumdog Millionaire projects India as Third World dirty under belly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky underbelly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations,' Bachchan wrote.

'It's just that the SM idea authored by an Indian and conceived, and cinematically put together by a Westerner, gets creative Globe recognition. The other would perhaps not,' he said.

But despite the astounding success achieved by the film, which is being touted as the next big winner at the Oscars, Bishakha Dutta, a documentary filmmaker based in Mumbai, is articulate about her disappointment with the much-hyped film.

She says, "The film takes each and every cliche there is about India and Mumbai and puts it in its plot. The result is a film that takes you from one horror of Mumbai to another, in a plot that is incredulously unbelievable."

Shyam Benegal, veteran film maker who is credited as the pioneer of art house cinema in India refuses to take sides and says "I have not seen the film but answering the question from a theoretical point of view, as a foreign director filming in India, Danny would view his surroundings as a foreigner would and that is natural."

"Richard Attenborough made a film on Gandhi in 1982 and it went onto win eight Oscars; I too made a film on Gandhi but it did not get that sort of response. That is because Attenborough could place Gandhi in a cultural context that could be easily understood by a western audience," Benegal says.

"But an Indian film made by an Indian director is different because he brings a completely different perspective to the table, one that might not be well understood by a foreign audience," Benegal told PTI.

So is there a invisible ceiling that bars Indian directors from entering the haloed and glittering gates of the western award galas; does Apartheid still exist in the film circles of the West!

Many would try to answer the question by throwing up the name of Satyajit Ray who won an honorary Oscar in 1992 for Lifetime Achievement. But can Ray's work be taken as representative of the larger diaspora of Indian cinema, especially India's popular cinema, Bollywood?

Bacchan had an opinion on the above question. He wrote in his blog, 'The so called commercial escapist world of Indian Cinema had vociferously battled for years on the attention paid and the adulation given to the legendary Satyajit Ray at all the prestigious Film Festivals of the West.'

'And not a word of appreciation for the entertaining mass oriented box office blockbusters that were being churned out from Mumbai. The argument, Ray portrayed reality; the other escapism, fantasy and incredulous posturing.'

Satyajit Ray apart, India and Hollywood go a long way back, from Peter Seller's Baxi in The Party to Dev Patel's Jamaal in Slumdog Millionaire, India and Indians have figured aplenty in Hollywood films, usually the stereotypical lampoon in awe of the wonderful west, with oily hair and funny accent.

So are all works by foreigners culprits of having a lopsided view of India.Despite her harsh criticism of Slumdog?

Bishakha says that an out and out judgement on all works by non Indians would be inappropriate and unjust.

"The book that came the closest to capturing the true spirit of Mumbai was Shantaram by Gregory Roberts, who is an outsider, so to say. But it taught me a lot about Mumbai, things that I did not know about the city I live in," said Bishakha.

The world got it's first taste of India during the 60's with Merchant Ivory films, which brought together Indian and British artistes with stories that were based in the Indian milieu.

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