For a lot of Indians, the first time they ever heard of the existence of Norah Jones was when her conquest at the Grammy’s in 2003 made her a household name. It became imperative to own a copy of her record-breaking albums. USA had validated her worth, how could India refute? Never mind her citizenship.Much the same happened at the Academy Awards this year. All bowed down to the victory of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and hailed it as India’s triumph in the West. Even the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh went on to extol the achievement.
My objections with this are two fold.
To begin with, it wasn’t an Indian victory at all. It was a British victory for a British film. How then does “my culture and my civilization” enter Resul Pookutty’s speech of thanks? Obviously, “my culture and my civilization” couldn’t have cared less about Pookutty’s outstanding skill till he hit the jackpot at the Oscars. This leads to the second issue of India’s constant need for recognition. On one hand we have Indian technicians working for a foreign film, claiming their award to be a breakthrough for India. On the other hand we have Preity Zinta resenting the fact that the Indian Movie Industry is called “Bollywood” in an obvious attempt to ape Hollywood. Yet another perspective is provided by insinuations of Sanjay Leela Bhansali compromising his integrity to tailor “Black” to the needs of the Oscars. Truly, we are a land of extremes.
What draws attention is the victory of Slumdog being regarded as a breakthrough for Indian cinema. It is revolting the way fifteen seconds of fame for an Indian movie (which is not even Indian) come to mean so much for this country. Evidently, US hegemony is no more restricted to politics. If we are not careful, we might have headlines concerning movies being outsourced to India!
It must also be noted that Amol Palekar is not wrong in pointing out the irony—the much sneered at Indian song-and-dance routines seem to have been lapped up when brought forth by a British film-maker.
Moving on to another camp of critics, we see accusations being hurled by the West recognizing and appreciating only those works of art that highlight the filth and squalor of Indian society. Children protested with placards that read “Don’t call me a dog!” outside Anil Kapoor’s house while Priyadarshan and Amitabh Bachchan independently expressed chagrin (this was made all the more conspicuous by the fact that the day after the Oscars, Bachchan extended his heartiest congratulations to the movie via his blog). Whether it’s “The White Tiger” by Arvind Adiga or Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire”, it seems it is solely the ugly face of Indian society that draws the attention of an insecure West waiting to underline their superiority. What is interesting to note is that nowhere does any critic ever deny the presence of this filth and squalor.
No prizes for figuring out why. They simply can’t, because it’s there for everyone to see. Honestly, AR Rahmans’s vehement claims that the movie portrayed India in a positive light were superfluous. Even the shadow of the majestic dome of the Taj is incapable of concealing the slums that lurk behind ever skyscraper; no amount of scenic beauty can cover up the grotesque image of bleeding hearts of Godhra and Mumbai. So if “The God of Small Things” wins for bringing out caste distinctions in Indian society, that’s no better or worse than Khalid Hosseini achieving phenomenal success for bringing out the plight of a nation fallen apart. They both depict reality, harsh yet soul-stirring.
India needs to stand on its own feet. Our industry needs to work for creative interests, not political ones. We need to provide our own artists and technicians with the appreciation they deserve. There is an urgency that demands that we must refrain from exalting victories such as Slumdog by claiming them to be Indian. Or condemning them as anti-patriotic. Art knows no borders.