Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Slumdogs and underdogs

Saw "Slumdog Millionaire" over the weekend in the slightly alienating environment of Langley, a suburb of Vancouver (yes I've been travelling a lot of late). About 10 seconds into the movie you realise you are in the hands of a superbly gifted director. The movie impressed me enormously. Whether it was brilliant or condescending, whether it breaks new ground or hypes cliches about Bombay and insults slumdwellers by calling them dogs... I refer you to the Wikipedia entry for details on the various self-important views from both sides.

I can't resist making a few (rambling) points myself. The Wikipedia entry mentions that Tapeshwar Vishwakarma, a representative of a slum-dwellers' welfare group, has filed a defamation lawsuit and "alleged that the name of the movie is derogatory and he was particularly displeased that Indians associated with the film did not object to the use of word `slumdog.' " I find this comment extremely telling for its gratuitous nationalistic premise that Indians would naturally defend the honour and virtue of their slum-dwellers while foreigners know only how to run them down. The facts are mostly otherwise: middle-class Indians typically despise slumdwellers, label them `criminals' and are complacent about their brutalisation at the hands of police and other authorities, while every foreigner I've ever talked to without exception recognises the obvious fact that slum-dwellers are just people like everyone else.

In fact, the word "Slumdog" in the movie is clearly an ironic reference to the way the police and the host of the KBC show (both Indians) think of the character. Had the director wanted to avoid controversy all he needed was to show Anil Kapoor or the police inspector abusing the Jamal Malik character with this word. Maybe he thought the audience was bright enough to understand this point without spelling it out?

As an aside, I'm reminded of a teacher in my college who, on learning that we (a bunch of college students) were teaching slum children in Bombay in our spare time, warned us that we shouldn't teach them too much, else they would "rise up against society"! On another occasion the head of my department at TIFR scolded me thus for being involved in a protest on behalf of slum-dwellers: "you always take the side of the underdog!". I said that was a compliment, but he somehow failed to understand.

By free association, I'm reminded now of the brilliant jazz musician Charles Mingus, who titled his autobiography "Beneath the underdog". Mingus was a cantankerous - and occasionally violent - genius from a poor background who is one of just three or four musicians who I feel have changed the world - or at least my world. I shall blog about him some day.

And some other day, I will blog about all the people who tried to "teach" me, a quarter-century ago, what scoundrels and criminals infest our Bombay slums (as well as my inspired retort that having grown up in Malabar Hill, I was confident that this was the true home of criminals and scoundrels!).

End of ramble.


Abi said...

Had the director wanted to avoid controversy all he needed was to show Anil Kapoor or the police inspector abusing the Jamal Malik character with this word.

As I recall, there were several instances when the hero gets called a 'slumdog', especially by the police inspector and constable.

I don't think anyone would accuse this movie of being subtle.

Sunil Mukhi said...

Abi: That's possible, indeed I had wondered while writing the post whether the abuse was clearly spelt out (I could only remember Anil Kapoor saying "chaiwala" with contempt). Of course in view of this the court cases about the "insulting title" are even sillier than I thought.

Ramanan said...

Some critic has named the dogs near his street after the film makers ! This is hilarious ....


Raju Bathija said...

I too saw the movie over the weekend. It was a very good movie, worthy of an Oscar. I hope that A.R. Rahman too wins an Oscar. All the talk about movie exploiting poverty in India is rubbish, in my opinion. If it is there, it will be shown.

In today's HT Cafe, which you in one of your previous post has referred to as for the intellectually challenged persons, here is what M.F. Husain has to say about the scene which was funny at the same time yucky ``That shot is not to be taken literally -- it is a metaphor for the fact that politicians throw us into shit and we look for escape -- in entertainment.'' He also has done an artwork, inspired by the movie, which is on the cover of HT Cafe.