An Area of Darkness

Slumdog Millionaire examines a place where Indian cinema almost never ventures

In the past few weeks, Slumdog Millionaire has become nothing short of a worldwide sensation, earning a jaw-dropping 10 Oscar nominations and grossing far more than anyone imagined the movie would. The film has been honored by the Screen Actors Guild, the Golden Globes, and the Producers Guild. On Friday, its director, Danny Boyle, received a prize from the Directors Guild, an honor that usually foreshadows an Oscar for best director.

The adulation for the movie is much deserved. It reminded me more than a bit of the 2005 film Crash—heartfelt and vivid, if contrived at times. But these minor flaws are overshadowed by the unfair and worrisome criticism that has been aimed at it by many Indians. Most of the disapproval focuses not on what makes the movie weak (the farcical plot and mediocre character development) but on what makes it strong (the gritty emphasis on the desperately poor country that is still modern India).

A number of Indians, led by prominent Bollywood figures, have condemned the movie for depicting India as a poor, dirty, lawless, and backward nation. Amitabh Bachchan, perhaps Bollywood’s most successful living actor, said that the movie “causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots” because of its unwarranted portrayal of India as a “Third World dirty underbelly developing nation.”

First, it must be said that most of those objecting to Slumdog, the immensely wealthy who have shown little concern for India’s poor, have virtually no credibility on this issue. Poverty may be far removed from their Indian experiences, but a different world exists not far from their pampered villas. Indeed, Bombay’s own Dharavi slum, home to one million people, is just miles from the Bollywood studios that so regularly exclude any mention of those who have been left behind.

Second, it’s clear that Bachchan and his ilk have thought little about what it means to actually produce art, a self-evident fact given the state of most Bollywood films. While there is hardly agreement about the “purpose” of art—if art has a “purpose” at all—the raging debate for the past half century has been about whether art should serve as a medium of protest or simply a psychologically-credible reflection of society. The writer James Baldwin famously upbraided some novelists for producing work that he considered too long on protest and too short on narrative.

If I had a criticism of Slumdog, that would be it. It leans too heavily on this time-honored protest model, one summed up by Crash’s director, Paul Haggis, when he said in his 2005 Oscar acceptance speech that, “Art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.”

While Slumdog does succumb to this weakness, it compares favorably to the average Bollywood flick, which lacks both narrative credibility and discernible substance. The result is that a nation with so many challenges and so vibrant a film culture produces so many movies that feature meaningless plots punctuated only by feel-good song-and-dance routines. Indeed, it’s not that the movies fail to penetrate the surface—it’s that they don’t even capture it. And so it has fallen to talented British producers to make movies that actually bring India to life, as the estimable Richard Attenborough did in 1982 when he made Gandhi.

Apart from the renewed focus on India’s struggling underclasses, I hope that the lasting legacy of Slumdog is that it inspires a new generation of Bollywood producers to produce films that are at once psychologically credible and socially substantive. Decades ago, this happened regularly. The legendary Indian director Raj Kapoor reached his pinnacle by traversing the forbidden lines of religion, class, and sexuality in a movie about the romance between a wealthy Hindu boy and a poor Christian girl.

For Bachchan, perhaps a more constructive activity than trying to discredit Slumdog is to make a movie like it himself. As it stands, those who think that “pain and disgust” are the appropriate reactions for India’s “nationalists and patriots” are simply abrogating their responsibilities, then complaining when others pick them up.

Paras D. Bhayani ’09, The Crimson’s managing editor in 2008, is an economics concentrator in Pforzheimer House.