Cry. Laugh. Pity. Sympathize. Anticipate. Cheer. Cry again. This time out of overwhelming emotions. If a movie can make you do all this… take you on a roller-coaster ride… get you involved thoroughly… it’s destined to be a masterpiece. And there’s no two ways about it. Slumdog Millionaire is one. Cinema par excellence. Brilliant concept, deft execution and of course, world class production values. Bring on the laurels. And some more. But I hold my horses here. And throw myself in the ring of debate. (It’s hard not to. It comes with being an Indian.)
Ever since Slumdog created the hype it did in the US, we Indians have been waiting with bated breath. Come on, it’s a movie about India, having a 100% Indian cast. So what if the funds are pumped in by firangs? So what if a Brit has helmed the movie? And so what if it releases in India itself months later!? It is still an Indian movie. Because we Indians are eager to embrace anything as Indian at the slightest connection. And this is big. It puts India on the global map. Wow! Some more applause please.
Really? Should we as Indians indeed applaud? Mind you, every word of praise the movie is receiving is deserved. But wait. There’s a raging debate now about whether it portrays India ‘correctly’? Unfortunately, all the poverty, dirt, hypocrisy, inhumanness, even the shit shown in the movie, is for real. We see most of it everyday. And some of it, we don’t. But it exists. Right in our neighborhood. There’s no denying. The movie, unashamedly, rips apart the dark, concealed underbelly of India.
But then why is there such a hue and cry about the portrayal of this dark side?
Here’s why: The West has always been fascinated with this land of “elephants, cow worshippers and snake charmers” (for the uninitiated, that’s India). The first thought (and unfortunately the only ones) that come to a firang’s mind when they hear the word India: poverty, dirt, illiteracy, crowds and more poverty. Now here’s the sad thing – to most westerners, it seems that only this dark side is acceptable as real. Any other portrayal is unreal and therefore unacceptable. They believe in the poor India. The dirty India. The ‘real’ India.
It isn’t surprising therefore, to see that most of the Indian movies that have struck a chord with the west are the ones that are dark. Haven’t filmmakers like Satayjit Ray and Mira Nair (without a doubt, amazing filmmakers) made a name in these so called developed societies by showing the dark side of India?
Without a question, we all know there’s a lot more to our motherland. But the West is clearly overwhelmed with what has been shown to them all these years and the perception that it has created in their minds. In a loose sense, this is what we in the advertising parlance call ‘the brand image’.
And essentially that is what needs to change. We need to change perceptions. Image. It definitely is not easy to change a brand image (ask the marketing gurus and they’ll shout their approval in unison). Can’t be done overnight. It’s a herculean task. Campaigns like India Shining and those about tourism need to go beyond words. We need to walk on talk. With a clear vision guiding us. We need something tangible to portray. We need to justify that it’s not a fantasy. And in addition to that, we need quality. How many movies of Slumdog’s stature can we recall? If we can make a movie as brilliant as this, with the backdrop of a shining India, recognition shall follow. We need to lift ourselves up. Wipe off the artificial gloss that adorns most of our movies and talk real. Sounds challenging? Of course. It is. Are we up for it? Ah-a. Now that remains to be seen.