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Slumdog Millionaire: Loved Everywhere But India?

Director Danny Boyle with the cast of Slumdog Millionaire (Pal Pillai/AFP/Getty Images).
by Stephanie Valera
28 April 2009

by Angeline Thangaperakasam, Asia Society India Centre

MUMBAI, April 28, 2009 - As global accolades, including a Golden Globe win and numerous Oscar nominations, for Slumdog Millionaire
piled up, there was great anticipation for its release in India,
especially in Mumbai where the movie was set. But when the movie was
released here on January 23, reactions ranged from lukewarm to
disgusted dismissal.

Amitabh Bachchan, Bollywood icon, Mumbai resident and the real-life presenter of Kaun Banega Crorepati (the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire) was one of the first to publicly denounce SDM.
His accusations were two-fold: first, that the West frequently focuses
on the negative in India and not on its innovativeness and enterprising
spirit; second, he points out that an Indian director making a
Western-style film would not have garnered the same media attention
lavished on SDM, an Indian-focused film helmed by a Western
director, Danny Boyle. This is an inaccurate statement since movies by
Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth), M. Night Shyamalan (Sixth Sense) and Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham)
have all been recognized internationally. The fact is, the movie
highlights slums and focuses negative international attention on
India—and this is what's offensive.

Located in the heart of Mumbai, Dharavi—where the protagonist of SDM
grows up—is the largest slum in Asia. It's a plot of land about half
the size of New York's Central Park that’s home to an estimated
300,000–1 million people. Dharavi is a city within a city and has
evolved over the last hundred years. Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay,
an iconic movie about slum life in the red light district of
Kamathipura, Mumbai, was made about 20 years ago, but if one watches
the two movies today, the scenes are still strikingly similar.

is not by any means Mumbai’s only slum; 50 percent of Mumbai's 16
million inhabitants live in slums. But the existence of Dharavi and
other slums is an image that Mumbai residents want to forget. The
upwardly mobile middle class sees itself as being from an India that is
economically vibrant, young, and powerful on the global stage. The
India that SDM focuses on, with its poverty and deprivations,
is part of the reality of India—but it’s a reality that contradicts the
vision that the city has for itself.

This same sentiment also played out in the country's reaction to White Tiger,
Aravind Adiga's Booker Prize-winning novel, which presents a very dark
and disturbing view of India and its poverty. The international
recognition that the book has garnered was not appreciated here. Adiga
was accused of presenting a negative image of India to win praise

Whether SDM is truly an Indian movie is also a topic of discussion in the media. SDM's Indian genealogy is long—it is based on a novel, Q & A,
by Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, it was shot almost entirely in Mumbai,
features an all-Indian cast (though the protagonist is played by a
British Indian actor), the score is by a well-known Bollywood music
composer, A.R. Rahman, and the sound design is by Resul Pookutty,
another Bollywood vet. That is, however, where contribution of SDM's Indian parents ends. SDM
was made by a British director with American and British funds. The
glossy quality of the movie and its stylishly edited scenes are classic
Boyle. And more significant to the Indians is the fact that the
presentation of Indian slum life was made by a British director, a
non-Indian, a foreigner.

SDM has unleashed on Dharavi, and probably other slums, an interest in slum tours. Reality Tours,
a company that organizes tours of the streets of Dharavi, stresses that
the tours are put together after consultation with Dharavi residents.
Tour guides who work for Reality Tours are mostly slum residents
themselves. Profits from the tours are also said to be reinvested into
the community in the form of English-language schools and vocational
institutions. The popularity of such tours may have the trickle-down
effect of promoting greater awareness of slum conditions resulting in
the diversion of much needed education and health services to the
slums. Nevertheless, the moral justifications of slum tours (like
disaster tourism) are debatable.

Slum dwellers have also
taken umbrage to the use of the word "slumdog" (a word coined by the
film's screenwriter, Simon Beaufoy). Slum dwellers staged a protest
here in early February hurling insults and hitting pictures of its cast
and crew with slippers.

Despite having been the number
one topic of discussion, commercially, the movie has not done very well
in Mumbai. Within three weeks of opening, the movie has been relegated
to showing to half-empty theaters in a handful of cinemas. By the time
its fate is determined at the 2009 Academy Awards on February 22, the
movie will likely not be showing in India at all. It does not have the
traditional elements of a Bollywood movie nor the elements that makes a
Hollywood film popular here. With a foot in each genre, it was in
no-man's land.

Mumbai is a city that has recently been ravaged by terrorist attacks
but it remains a city of dreams and a city that likes to dream.
Nurtured by a steady diet from Bollywood, that ultimate supplier of the
impossible dream, Mumbai is feasting on whatever riches SDM
brings to its table—global attention to its abject poverty, yes, but
also to its vibrancy and pluck; Golden Globe and Oscar nominations are
awards for its sons, and hopefully bring increased tourism to its
shores, and an increased global viewership for Bollywood films.