I haven’t been to India recently, so I’ve had to rely almost exclusively on Western accounts of anger in some Indian sectors about the now-Oscar-winning movie, Slumdog Millionaire. Apparently, some were angry about the word ‘dog,’ which they found particularly offensive. Note, again, how culturally specific insults can be: ‘monkey’ is not at all registered in India, whereas ‘dog’ — I know this from personal experience — goes too far (‘bastard’, as well, as Anil Kumble pointed out to Brad Hogg, also goes beyond the pale).
Others, however, were angry that the film’s central characters and plot came out of Dharavi, the massive slum in Bombay. I’m not sure I understand their logic, because, as ‘slum’ films go, this one was far better a portrayal than City of Joy, a Patrick Swayze movie from the 1990s that relied on the savior-Westerner prototype as its main protagonist, and focused much less on Indian wealth. That film, of course, also attracted protests, but Slumdog is simply different, since it is not meant to be a “realist” portrayal; it is a fantastic romp through a series of bigger-than-life characters (see Anil Kapoor’s role especially).
But more importantly, the idea that the film takes a large broadside againt India — and its slums — makes no sense either. For one thing, through the film, you root for the “slumdogs”; they are portrayed as the vibrant part of a society that dearly needs refreshing. For another, the film also heavily focuses on India’s new-found wealth, from the travel agency that the main character joins, to the illegal schemes that his brother runs in the mafia. When I think of the India portrayed in City of Joy, I think of a hopeless and decayed one, where charity remains the only engine for mobility. Danny Boyle’s India, on the other hand, is techni-colored and raring to go.
What’s the connection with cricket here (other than the film’s hilarious glimpse of a policeman chasing slum boys off private property for playing the game)? This entire debate brings to mind the other fracas over Andrew Symonds, and generally the touchy reactions the Indian media and upper-classes betray whenever faced with a slight, however imaginary. Cricket, like this film — and much else — has been subsumed under a larger need to glorify India, and not just any “real” India, but the mythical one that has come out of the 1990s, the supposedly “shining” one (that the voters rejected in 2004). No doubt, other countries also suffer these bouts of venomous nationalism, but in India, it’s different: it’s almost as if no criticism can be broached; respect must be shown at all times. When the cricket team fails, somehow it speaks for an entire country’s image, when, in reality, it should be just about the cricket team’s.
I suppose that’s my rather long-winded point: what does it say of your country that a silly, small independent film could possibly besmirch it? Self-confidence really doesn’t protest this much.