"Slumdog Millionaire", the quintessential underdog in this year's Oscars, has emerged as the unexpected winner with eight awards to its credit and the film - which is not an Indian film but definitely about India and its seamy underbelly - has caught the global imagination in an extraordinary manner.
Predictably, the responses it has elicited within India and elsewhere range from intense criticism for glorifying urban Indian poverty and much hand-wringing about the use of the word 'dog' - to a spontaneous outpouring of love and adulation for a film which has an enormous appeal and empathy quotient. The latter was unambiguously evident in the spontaneous ovation that the film and its extended family received at the Oscar awards ceremony.
While the debate will continue for a while, what is germane is the manner in which "Slumdog" exemplifies the enormous potential of soft power as a possible tool in the global quiver to deal with the complex challenge of post 9-11 jihadi terror. And, what is more, the cost-effective contrast could not be more striking. It is reported that the Oscar winning film was made for $13 million - a tenth of the production cost of its Hollywood rival "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button".
Here, the message of the film is about irrepressible spunk, crushing poverty, loads of luck, nascent love and more masala... all packaged in that inimitable Indian idiom of song and dance, rendered in captivating rhythm and cinematic texture which clearly has a cross-cultural appeal.
"Slumdog" has already earned its makers about $150 million and it is almost certain that the Oscar halo will act as a multiplier and the film will be seen across the world and dubbed into the myriad languages of the global family. Given the fact that the have-nots outnumber their more affluent and privileged peers in an overwhelming manner, the poor and impoverished of the world will feel a special sense of bonding and association with the protagonists, wistfully thinking about the luck and good fortune that has eluded them. There will be much thinking and class/culture-specific discussion about "Slumdog" in the years ahead and the hybrid word may well enter the lexicon in an unobtrusive way.
But what does "Slumdog" have to do with the current global attempt to deal with post 9-11? On balance, the so called GWOT (global war on terror) has been inadequate and very, very costly in terms of human lives while the fiscal expenditure incurred to date has acquired a humungous contour and continues to grow. My proposition is that those who have joined the current global jihad - with all its regional variants - are motivated by a certain inflexible interpretation of Islam and are then encouraged to acquire a zealous personal conviction that sanctions ruthless violence leading to martyrdom.
If those parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan afflicted by this jihadi fervor - a region now referred to as Afpakia - are cases in point, the relevance of "Slumdog" may be usefully extrapolated. What if this film had a content that examined the true meaning of Islam and offered a more nuanced and normative interpretation of one of the world's major religions?
Despite the various strictures enforced by the Taliban in Afpakia forbidding films and music, one can be sure that a film like this will be seen - either openly or covertly. And the alternate interpretation of Islam which illuminates the true meaning of jihad - appropriately packaged - would offer a more hopeful counterpoint to the certain death, destruction and gender inequity that the current Taliban ideology represents.
It merits recall that when the former USSR had occupied Afghanistan in 1979 and the US led western alliance, bankrolled by Saudi Arabia, had created the mujahideen warrior - the motivation and software came through the skilful use of soft power. Textbooks and easy to comprehend reading material were designed in local languages extolling the virtues of taking up arms against the foreign invader. This lethal software allowed for thousands of young Afghans, supported by their Pakistani brethren to distort Quranic tenets and leaven them with the Kalashnikov and the Stinger missile through rigorous ISI support and training.
The seeds thus sown have now become the whirlwind threatening Presidents Obama and Zardari in different ways and recent developments in Swat, where the Pakistan government has accepted a truce - tenuous peace for Taliban imposed Sharia - is illustrative.
Paradoxically, the current US fiscal expenditure on GWOT - which many in the Muslim world see as a war on Islam - is soon expected to touch $1 trillion. More troops are expected to be inducted by President Obama and it is estimated that maintaining one US soldier for a year in the Iraq-Afghanistan theatre costs $775,000.
Thus, for every 18 US soldiers deployed for one year, the US could have funded one "Slumdog" with a clear message embedded in it - the true meaning of Islam. Yet, in seven years since 9/11, the US has made little concerted effort to invest in such soft power, while one Taliban leader, Fazlullah, has reaped enormous dividends with an FM radio!
The box-office film with all the ingredients one associates with Bollywood and the more recent music-video have considerable untapped potential in the distorted discourses about Islam in Afpakia. For sure, a brave Pakistani film - "Khuda Ke Liye" - tried earnestly to offer an alternate view - but clearly more needs to be done.
"Slumdog", with a $13 million tag, offers myriad possibilities to introduce soft-power as an additional tool to the various means now being deployed to contain radical and distorted Islam. India, which has its own domestic and regional variant of jihadi fervor to contend with, must take a leaf from the triumph of "Slumdog". The A.R. Rahmans and the Ashutosh Gowarikers of Indian cinema need to be encouraged to enter the post 9-11 turbulence. The Indian state machinery appears to be oblivious to the utility of soft power and a meeting between those in charge of projecting India's soft power and some of Bollywood's thinking luminaries is called for.
(Uday Bhaskar is a well-known strategic analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com)
February 24, 2009