There is a delicious irony in the commercial and critical success of Slumdog Millionaire.Upper India has been desperately seeking Oscar recognition for its Hindi movies.Here is a movie with Mumbai-based story, Indian actors and Hindi dialogues which has won no less than ten Oscar nominations some of which will surely translate into awards. And yet Upper India is not happy.The movie itself has given rise to a new word: slumdog, while its criticism has brought forth an interesting phrase: poverty porn. That the present- day subjects of Her Majesty have made a movie about the former subjects has been duly noted. If the interest which the West is taking today in India’s underbelly had been taken two hundred years ago, there probably would have been no underbelly.
The issue however is not so much the West’s current interest in Lower India as its perceived betrayal of its former ally, the Upper India. To see this we will need to go back two centuries. The British could build an Empire in India and run it with relative ease because they were able to acquire legitimacy for it at the very outet, thanks to the discovery of Indo-European linguistic commonality. This is a political correct phrase from today’s self-consious lexicon. In its time the commonality was interpreted in purely racial terms. Indo-Eurpeanism provided the British with powerful means of “connexion and reconcilaition” not with all Indians , not with all Hindus but with upper-caste Hindus.
That the Kurds and Pathans spoke languages that were related to Sanskrit, Greek and Latin was not mentioned. That most Indian Muslims were converts was ignored. That there was no clear-cut ethnic division between upper and lower castes was glossed over.The legitimacy thesis went like this:Upper-caste Hindus and Europeans came from the same racial stock. Indo-Aryans had had their period of glory in the remote past; it was now the turn of their European brethren to rule and dominate. Needless to say the thesis were enthusiatically accepted by the upper-castes. Colonialism may have ended but the thesis was never laid to rest from the Indian side.
In the late 1950s when I was in high school, an older cousin , himself a school master, gave me a second-hand pocket-sized book. Published in the 1930s or so , it listed common Hindi words with their English equivalents. Thus huqqa was translated hubble-bubble; gulli-danda was called Indian cricket, and so on. Much later it occurred to me that the book was probably compiled for the benefit of a native moonshee, so that he could describe native social phenomena and activities to the White Sahib in the latter’s idiom. Those indeed were the days when Kalidas was India’s Shakespeare; Samudragupta was India’s Napolean; and Calicut was India’s Venice.
For a short while after independence in 1947 conscious efforts were made to establish a national identity on all fronts.But in the globalization era, as Indian economy became more and more servile, culture became more and more derivative. The west again became the frame of reference, except that now it was USA and not Europe. That is how the imitative term Bollywood was coined to denote Hindi cinema.( May be British-made English films can more correctly be called Bollywood. Then Mumbai-made films can be said to constitute Mollywood.)
Hindi film indusry is one of India’s most successful institutions. ( I am not competent to say anything about non-Hindi Indian films.) The success or otherwise of an institution can be guaged by asking how independent its vocabulary is. This can easily be seen from the case of other Indian successes such as highway-side Dhaabaas;Mumbai’s Dibba ( lunch-distribution) system; road-side bicycle and two-wheeler repair shops; and the underworld.The most obvious indicator of Hindi films’ autonomy is the exclusively Indian designation : music director. It tells you how important songs are in a Hindi film. (If the Slumdog gets only the musical Oscar it would amount to cheating.)
A Shantaram, Mahboob, K.Asif, Raj Kapoor or a Manmohan Desai would have probably viewed the term Bollywood as a personal insult. When the globalization-era multiplex-going Indian upper crust seeks an Oscar for a Hindi movie it is to legitimize its own denationalization. If a British film on Mumbai slums is multiply honoured, it is a subtle indictment of the Indian non-slum.It is noteworthy that in the movie the slum kid knows about Benjamin Franklin’s image on a hundred- dollar bill but not about Mahatma Gandhi’s on a thousand- rupee note.Tha Anil Kapoor character gives an insider tip to the slum kid. It is remarkable that he instictlively recognizes the deception, and succeeds by acting contrarily.
It is noteworthy that the hero has a Muslim name while the girl has a Hindu name. In a Hindi film of the 1960s the scrptwriter would have had to find a way of bumping off the girl because she had been violated.While the movie has been variously faulted, nobody has raised any objetion to the boy -gets- the -girl ending. Times have changed for the better in some respects at least.
Slumdog Millionaire tells the story of a boy from Indian slums who makes it big.The story is no doubt fantastic. Yet the fact that the scenario of a socially handicapped ,but otherwise brilliant, young person reaching the top in today’s India is considered plausible is a great tribute to it.