Slumdog Millionaire is an exception though not wholly. How often have we seen any work of art from India or about India getting western nod not being castigated by one section or other in India? Ranging from some nondescript group to Government of India itself, everyone has been touchy when it came to portrayal of India through artistic means. A western gaze, behind or before the work, no matter however much slight, only added to the disrepute of the work. So we have instances of books being banned, paintings being burned, films being prevented from taking shape and artists behind them being accused of selling India's seamier side to their personal gain. India as a whole never partook in their glory.
It can't be termed a co incidence when almost everybody who brought India laurels from foreign shores especially from west confronted resentment and indifference back home. Recently when Arvind Aliga won the Booker prize for his debut book he has had his share of caustic criticism for dishing out squalor of India to his western readers. Expectedly the coveted prize did not do any good for the sales of his book in India. His claims of being an insider were ripped apart by adducing his stints abroad. Kiran Desai was lucky to have got only a mute disapproval of her book and magazines which dare to publish Arundhati Roy's articles get letters spewing venom in abundance from the claimants of nationalist disposition. Despite being a master auteur Satyajit Ray could never get all India recognition and on most occasions was resented and ridiculed by leading cinema personalities including the showman Raj Kapoor. Booker of Bookers winner Salman Rushdie first tasted the swill of ban not in any other but in the country where he was born. In addition we have many instances when foreigners casting their artistic eyes on India found themselves thrown out of country.
Slumdog, despite being a work of Briton depicting the financial capital of India in its filthiest avatar, has more or less escaped both official and public ire. Surprisingly we did not get to see any major protest either from chauvinists who consider themselves custodians of Indian culture and past or from those whose sensibilities are thinner than a grain of sand. In stark contrasts to earlier responses India is looking up to its performance in Oscars. So what is it about Slumdog that did not make Indians angry despite certain provocative remarks emanating from those who hold considerable influence over them?
The question assumes even more importance in the wake of the fact that most NRIs felt certainly embarrassed by the portrayal of India in this film and had tough time watching the film in the midst of foreign mainly white audiences. The dynamics of watching a film about one's nation completely changes depending upon where and with whom the film is being watched. And when the film in question happens to be a departure from fairy tale romance the passion runs even more high. NRIs must have tried to read the contours of white faces when screen was bursting with filth and slum seemingly unfit for any civilian inhabitation. Far from the nation when the patriotic feelings tend to float on surface even a tinge of snigger on foreign faces becomes a cause for discomfiture. This expounds the predicament most NRIs had watching the film.
But when the same film was watched by Indians here in India amongst an audience comprised of only Indians it was not the reaction of the 'others' that they were concerned about but it was what was there on the screen. For us Jamal was not a protagonist representing India but just a character whose free spirit and histrionics made us laugh. Even when Jamal thought it fit to dip into a pit of shit and ran towards Amitabh Bachchan in a way no Indian child no matter however much poor can ever think of doing it was not the crap we allowed to disturb our mind but Jamal's 'come-what-may-I-will' attitude that we admired and enjoyed.
A Briton may have overdone certain things and that too ironically in the name of reality but no longer are we na've enough not to be able to separate fiction from fact. Any fiction may have its seed in the fact only but a fact deprived of the nonchalance, freedom and imagination of fiction will just be a banal statistic not what we call art.
So when we saw eyes of a child being gouged out by beggar mafia we knew it may be truth and turning our eyes blind to it won't make it false but at the same time we did not forget that there are other truths also which are not tough on eyes but eye pleasing. This time India has been able to see a film just as a film. It only lends credence to the assertion that over the years not only India but Indians have grown also.
It is high time that west also recognize Indian talents other than which holds mirror to Indian society abut its fallacies. We can't repudiate the bitter truth that had Slumdog not been directed by a Briton it wouldn't have become the kind of global success it did. We can't blame the skeptics when they say that Indian poverty sells in west because facts back their claim. Apart from 'Lagan' and 'Gandhi' every other film or for that matter any piece of art that west thought worthy of their recognition centers around only one theme yes, Indian abyss. Even 'Lagan' is a rustic story and 'Gandhi' too like Slumdog was a foreign venture. So the fact that a Briton filming what allegedly pleases western eyes becomes a success is not at all surprising. What is astonishing is the way India shed their inhibitions, broke their earlier lenses and reveled in the success and story of the film.
But unfortunately we can't say the same about west. It is yet to come out of its illusions and inhibitions. Deeming that no Indian film was ever considered good enough to get an Oscar nod it is pretty safe to assume that some preconceived notions preclude west from looking at Indian cinema in a dispassionate way. How else do we comprehend that in nearly 100 years of its history Indian cinema couldn't come up even with one film worthy of being the best film in foreign language cinema category? Even the great Satyajit Ray had to content with a general award like lifetime achievement at the fag end of his life.
And this grudge becomes even weightier when we see the current toast of Oscars Slumdog using every stereotype for which Indian cinema has often been scoffed by westerns. Lack of logic, co-incidences, song and dance, two brothers parting and venturing in opposite directions and then meeting and living-happily-ever-after are the ingredients Slumdog heavily relies on stringing them with the doses of reality. I need not mention here a number of classics from Indian cinema which will never gather the dust of the time and will keep furthering the cause of Indian cinema.
People may claim that Oscar is not the be all and end all and 'Noble' of cinema but we can't wish away the fact that Oscar makes for an international approval of the work and not only brings one an unprecedented recognition but also catapults to a level from where one is visible and audible to the whole world. So despite Oscar's arguable status as the absolute award people in the film business will keep craving for the coveted trophy. Indian cinema may have more viewers than Western cinema can ever boast but still it is considered loud and escapist.
Slumdog may not be an Indian film but it has definitely helped Indian talent get a global exposure. A. R. Rehman's three Oscar nominations and Resool Pookutty's one will go a long way in making other's road to global recognition a little less bumpy. Indian cinema which unjustly bears the burden of derogatory epithet Bollywood can begin treading a new path from here. Slumdog may prove to be a watershed moment if west acknowledges new talent and Indians leave no stone unturned in cashing in on this wonderful opportunity. Not only will it lead Indian cinema to a world wide artistic recognition but also extricate it from the image of being kitschy which is not that far from truth. The acceptance of a film that sparked a debate about its being India bashing or India celebrating amongst Indians should abet both Indian film makers to let the art of cinema rule in its full blossom and west to be more appreciative of creative talent from India regardless of any propensity towards its favored subjects.