Monday, March 02, 2009

The Slumdog Millionaire: A movie that Indians love to hate

Few weeks back, I was talking to Ashish, my husband, about a movie which was creating quite a stir in the creative world. It was before it won the Golden Globe, Critics Choice Awards and the greatest of the awards, an Oscars. We didn’t know then, that it is directed by an English director, financed by an American company and is based on a novel written by an Indian. All we knew was everyone was talking about it.
The movie magically and shockingly took us back to the city that we cherish so much...Mumbai or Bombay. The city of dreams, the city of humidity and sweat. The city that has taught hundreds of thousands of large families to live in one-bedroom apartment. The city which taught so many of us to struggle and to dream. A city with a sky full of stars in the darkness of night, and filled with human stars in the daytime blaze–a city of fashion, of film,  of a murky underworld, and decaying slums.
The slums runs through this amazing city like a big snake, shinning black, slithering and swallowing whatever beautiful which comes its way. When you fly into the heart of city, the first thing you see is slums, eating away the hills, the greenery, and the beauty of the city. The roads in the city act as dividing mediums with big malls on one side shouting loudly the slogan–India Shining. On the other side, silently, lie slums that people in Mumbai have trained themselves to ignore, thinking that if they close their eyes to the problem long enough it will somehow go away.
Most people, who live in the slums, left their huge homes in villages that provided clean water, clean air, and land that is pure and fertile. Ironically, Mumbai provides polluted air and long queues where people must stand in line for water to drink and oil for cooking. Then they carry these basic necessities to their shanties of less than 100 square feet that provides shelter for families as large as six or more members. They struggle every day to try to realize their dreams to “make it big,” like the few hundred before them who have miraculously managed to achieve the fantasy.
Is this why they could not accept this movie? Is it because it shows the reality instead showing some beautiful location in Switzerland with stars like Sharukh Khan dancing to senseless tunes? Is it because the movie shows how kids can lose fingers, hands, even eyesight, for the “crime” of begging in the streets? Is it because it shows how kids are taught to kill for money to become the next don?
People don’t like the title of the movie because they see “Slumdog” as a putdown for those who live in the slums, as though they are no better than dogs.  If words are supposed to insult what about the word “Millionaire” that is right next to it? People say they didn’t like the movie because it doesn’t show the "India Shinning" image. Instead the director chose a very dirty place, Slums of Mumbai, which according to them doesn’t exist. I see this divergence from fact as comparable to when a leader of a country like Iran says that he doesn’t believe the holocaust happened. Though I agree that this is not the only part of India yet the story was not about India it was about love in the streets of slums. How else can you show that without bringing in the slums?
The big actors in Bollywood don’t agree with this movie probably because they didn’t get a role in it. Some say the movie won only because a foreigner directed it. Maybe they have forgotten that the only other movie about India that managed to win international awards was Gandhi. Gandhi is shown religiously in India on every TV channel on Independence Day, Republic Day, and on the anniversary of his death. No one complains for this masterpiece though this movie is also directed by another foreigner - Richard Attenborough, an Englishman, and the role of Gandhi played by Ben Kingsley, an American.
Yet when the same movie managed to win the first ever Oscar for an Indian musician - A R Rahman, India is celebrating. Kids who acted in the movie were wholeheartedly welcomed back into the slums upon their return from the Oscar presentations. They are treated as famous actors and everyone is happy for them. The use of “dog” in the title of the movie is no longer an issue.  Every news channel and every internet site in India is talking about how great the movie is.
Frida Pinto has all of a sudden become a big celebrity. Before this movie no one even knew she existed. She is being talked in every gossip column. No seems to mind a barely covered Frida Pinto on the front page of Maxim and Vogue. She has even managed to get a role in Woody Allen’s new movie, a feat that the famous star, Ashwariya Rai, was unable to do till now.
My husband and I, like many people of our generation and background, love this movie for the hard and dirty truth it displays. We are probably few of those Indians who don’t cringe with the word “dog” in it, because we know that this city has always opened its arms for its citizens giving equal opportunities. This city has always cheered for its citizens whether they live in more affluent parts of the city or in the open-sewer slums.  
We rejoice when a movie about India gets an international platform because it breaks the mold that India has endured for ages. It dares to tell that there are no elephants roaming around in every city, there are no snake charmers walking on the roads and people don’t live in palaces and forts.
Someday, after all the current sensationalism about “Slumdog Millionaire” is over, somewhere in the narrow streets of the slums, an old man may be sitting under the only surviving tree visible for miles. He will tell awestruck kids about “Slumdog Millionaire” and how it managed to take a few children, just like them, across the seven oceans into a big city of dreams. He will not talk about how the movie showed only the slums and not the India of the Shining Image. He will tell about Frida Pinto who came from nowhere to become the most talked-about actress from India, and about A.R. Rahman, who became the first musician from India to win an Oscar. The movie and the people involved in it will be the shining images left for India to remember and commend forever.

A new friend...

It was cold this morning when Ashish left for his office. Alone now, how to pass the day weighed heavily upon me like a dark, thousand-ton burden. I stood at the French window that frames a lovely view of the lake, brimming with life in the warm months of the year. Now it lay frozen and desolate, the barren trees standing patiently, waiting for the warm breath of summer to return.

The only color visible in the outside world was white. Surprisingly, all the cars were white too, covered as they were with winter’s snow. I missed the colors of the summer months, and the people strolling and playing along the lakeshore. It told me I was in the middle of a vibrant civilization.

I decided to make an effort to pull myself out of the depression that had taken control of my life. As I was about to turn away from the window, I noticed something moving in the shrub that’s right outside my apartment. A large squirrel was staring at me with his big black eyes. The squirrel looked like a toy that someone had placed at the edge of the shrub. I didn’t move for a long time for I was afraid of scaring away the only companion I had.

After a while, the squirrel moved a little closer to my window, but I still did not move. Then the squirrel moved very close to the window, so close that only the window pane separated us. He looked so beautiful with his fluffy fur and beautiful salt-and-pepper tail arched over his back. His large toes and curved claws were clearly visible. Next, he sat up on his back feet and folded his front “hands” close to his chest. He looked like an old man sitting on a stool, wondering what he had forgotten to bring home from the market that his wife had sent him to get.

I suddenly remembered that I had some bread pieces left from breakfast that I could share with this poor soul. My sudden movement to get the bread scared Mr. Squirrel and he ran back to the shrub. I was devastated for I didn’t want to lose my new friend. With the bread in hand, I stood silently where I had stood before and prayed that he would return. After a few moments, he did return, and this time he was a little bolder in approaching me.

When I opened the window, a cold gush of wind chilled my face. Sitting down, I extended my hand with a piece of bread toward the squirrel. He waited at a safe distance, but shifted his eyes back and forth from mine to the bread several times. He was clearly interested in the bread. I realized that I would not be able to get the squirrel to come to me so I made small pieces of the bread and threw them closer to him. The moment I closed the window, he rushed to the bread, took a piece in both hands, sat on his back feet, and began nibbling.

This interaction between the Squirrel and I made me realize how fascinating the tea party must have been for Alice at the Mad Hatter tea party, with the Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse there.

The squirrel didn’t let anything go to waste and never dropped a single piece of bread. All this while, he kept looking at me as he continued to eat. Was he thanking me? I smiled at the thought and wished I could talk to this special animal. After he ate his full, he grabbed one piece of bread and ran to hide it. He came back again and again, each time running off in a different direction to hide each morsel. It was fascinating to see him so busy and so serious with the task of hiding the food for later use.

After the squirrel hid every piece of bread, he came again to my window. This time he stood on his hind feet and stretched his whole body to its maximum length. He apparently wanted more food and stood like this for a long time. But I didn’t want to give him too much food, for I didn’t want to make him sick. I thought, Please come back tomorrow. I can’t give you any more food today.

As if he understood what I was thinking, he hopped away without even looking back. I felt so sad to see him go away like that, and wished that he would come back. And he did come back. He comes back every day now. I have named him Phil and he brightens my life in these gloomy winter days.

I am so happy that I found a new friend in such an unexpected way.