Slumdog millionaire. Enough has been written about it. It has garnered praise and courted controversy. But at the heart of this seeming contradiction, lies the truth. Truth that we Indians have been running away from.
Is the truth that it shows poverty? Yes it is. Are we running away from it? No we are not. Everyday we walk the same slum lanes where Jamal and his brother cavorted. At every kilometer we smell the same stench of avarice burning innocence. Every other movie Bollywood has made, celebrates the basti or the slums. In fact some of our bigger names in Bollywood have risen from this labyrinthine cesspool.
So why the angst? Why give it a sophisticated euphemism of poverty porn? Is it fashionable to be contrarian these days? Or is it that we just cannot say the truth as it is and resort to specious pretexts that somehow convey the angst but not the real reason behind it? Big B certainly chose this way. Scores of others said what is politically correct. After all if they pooh poohed it, how does one explain the awards and nominations? Ergo it is a brilliant film!
The polarized opinions are nothing but a telltale sign of our own inherent insecurities. Indians have always judged personal success on the yardsticks set by others. And in the case of films, it is Hollywood that sets the rules. Success in India has always been relative. We lapse into comparisons and that is our bane. We have to make Mumbai the next Shanghai. Is Narayanamoorthy the Indian Bill Gates? We judge even our tragedies relatively - is 26/11 India's 9/11? The comparison continues.
If there is one thing that works as an indigenous analogy, a purely Indian example that blazes the path for the world to follow, it is Bollywood.
For once we had a wholly indigenous success formula in Bollywood films, but we disregarded it because 'none of that masala works abroad for the golden statue '.Because again we were judging our ouvres with a western lens. Whereas the truth is the treasure was always in front of us but we seemed content in finding it elsewhere.
In reality, all those films that got nominated for the Academy Awards (Mother India, Salaam Bombay and Lagaan) were works of art, with a unique storyline, made with a passion and dogged determination to some meaningful entertainment untainted with the temptation of winning a western heart. But did we learn from those? No we disregarded them because we did not win. Others won. We are bad losers. We compare. We judge. We lose. We just don't seem to have the conviction in our own abilities.
The fact is that since the turn of the 20th century when Indian cinema started we have attempted the same formula over and over again and yet were left bereft of the Oscars. SMD is an average Bollywood potboiler. The 10 nominations somehow seem to mock at the Indian film industry's tireless and fruitless 100 year effort! And this is the catch! We consider not making it to the Oscars the benchmark of failure. In fact movies.ndtv.com calls all our 25 entries so far as India's Oscar Failures rather than India's Oscar Entries!! And the 3 nominations so far are also lumped unceremoniously along with the 'failures'.
We didn't learn from the ones who made it to the O list. Instead we entered films like Aishwarya Rai's Jeans in an attempt to figure out the elusive formula. And along came Danny Boyle who snatched our very own original idea and rejigged it with a Hollywood tag. The fact is Boyle deserves the accolades for his uncanny ability of identifying a unique storyline. The device of knowing the answers through little vignettes of a slumdog's life was a brilliant coup by Swarup. Boyle dressed it up with an insightful understanding of the essential Indianness it deserved. And in the process ended up whipping up a winning formula.
And that is what is at the heart of this seeming angst, this controversy. We just cannot digest the success and accolades Danny Boyle is getting. Because when we compare SMD with something, the closest thing that comes to mind is the previous Bollywood release - which we never took pride in; which we always disregarded as the underdog. When the topdog ends up feeling like an underdog despite its achievements, it was just a matter of time that another one laid claim to the prize as the real winner was too busy looking for the bone elsewhere.