The other day, I was watching the Slumdog Millionaire. I’ve seen it in parts a few times before when I was younger, but this seemed like the first time I watched a substantial part of the film in one sitting while understanding what was going on. The film does an excellent job of capturing the filthiest corners and the coarse, unscrupulous lives led by the poorest in India. The camera lurks at the dirt and squalor, and the narrative cleverly weaves together tales from the protagonist’s impoverished upbringing into his journey to becoming a millionaire.
However well-received this film may have been in the West, it’s true that Indians had little lost love for it. There are two reasons for this, the first being that it was utterly strange to hear children living on their own in the underbelly of Mumbai speaking solely in English. Even the children of the so-called elite don’t constantly speak in English! (This isn’t the real reason, although it did take me out of the narrative sometimes.)
The second, actual reason is the niggling sense of defensiveness and annoyance one feels at the typical stereotypes about India and its people being played out in the movie. Be it Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, Oscar-nominated Lion, Oscar-nominated Salaam Bombay, or Oscar-winning Born Into Brothels–– it is clear that the poverty, neglect, and harsh lives led by Indians, especially Indian children, are endlessly fascinating to the foreign gaze.
In direct and stark contrast lie films such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which cater to the disbelieving fascination with the colour, splendour, and grandeur of Indian life– festivals and weddings in particular.
Is there a middle ground between these two opposing appeals of this country? Not really.
While oscillating between my mild frustration at being portrayed as a stereotypical poverty-stricken, starved country or a constantly-celebratory, exotic one, the theme ‘Extremities of Being’ made me wonder whether these fascinations are somehow understandable. It is, after all, a human disposition to be attracted to stories of extreme feats achieved by man, dystopian landscapes or utopian fantasies; stories of resilience amidst cruel surroundings or of the affluent enjoying their overflowing wealth. We like to be shocked into silence by the gritty truth or delightfully overwhelmed by exoticism. This, perhaps, is one reason why these stories are so compelling.
After all, Slumdog Millionaire took Jamal from the slums and left him a multi-millionaire, impossibly reunited with his love. They could have given him an entry-level job in some Mumbai corporate and an arranged marriage– a better, more stable life. But that film probably wouldn’t have won eight Oscars.
I hope you enjoy reading this issue and find yourself thinking about it!