Tuesday, March 24, 2009

From Jae Hind to Jae Ho: ‘Ma tujhe salaam!’

Destiny wins! I salute thee Mother! The movie Slumdog Millionaire has been one of the hot topics being discussed for the last couple of months. Incisive criticism from many quarters continued to pelt, as the film picked up a lot of other awards before finally making it at the coveted Oscars. All this culminated in a climax that ended with eight Oscar Academy awards on the night of February 22, 2009. And what a night it was! As so many newspapers across India have gushed. Indeed, all is well that ends well.

Congratulations flowed now across the country. The Prime Minister Manmohan Singh conveyed the message to the Millionaire team. There have been reports that President Barack Obama wants to watch the movie. Hope he does! Amitabh Bacchan too came out with praise. Amir Khan has already done it before. But recently is reported to have said something opposite. Makes me wonder whom to believe, the press or the filmstars?! Danny Boyle publicly acknowledged on stage and made up for not having mentioned the name of Longines Fernandes, only proving his greatness once again. AR Rahman came out on top with his great music. Parliamentarians reportedly shouted Jae Ho.

As much as it has been said that it is not an Indian movie, the fact is that it has been filmed in India, has an almost entirely Indian cast with child actors who actually lived in those slums till they were picked up by the Millionaire team, and an ambitious music director from India who dared to dream. Vikas Swarup, the author of the novel on which this film is based, is an Indian diplomat. Loveleen Tandon is the co-director. (How much more ‘Indian’ can it get!) Apart from the liberties given to art and fiction, this movie has no other drawbacks and shows up the poverty in India that is very real.

This is a movie that deserves praise despite all the fault lines in the story that many critiques have tried to single out. My advice to them is, “Don’t pick your nose in public. It is a bad habit.” Some newspaper articles did hit the nail right on the head when they mentioned that many Indian movies are shot abroad and show a kind of affluent lifestyle that is but an impossible dream for millions of Indians. No one has prevented filmmakers in India from making movies about reality, and life as it is in most parts of the country. Satyajit Ray did it without the fancy cameras that are available to film directors today. Most Hindi movies depicting big houses, sports cars, rich heroes etc. portray a kind of lifestyle that is as much alien to the bulk of Indians as the poverty in this movie is to the affluent West.

Amartya Sen, in his book The Argumentative Indian (p. 127), has written:
“There is, for example, nothing false about Indian poverty, nor about the fact – remarkable to others – that Indians have learned to live normal lives while taking little notice of the surrounding misery.”

In the previous page, he has written about the ‘love of the false-exotic’:
“It is not obvious whether the imaginary scenes of splendour shown in such ‘entertainment movies’ should be seen as misdescriptions of the India in which they are allegedly set, or as excellent portrayals of some non-existent ‘never-never land’ (not to be confused with any real country).”

This is a film that (I hope) will help break many myths. One of them is that poverty ‘sells’ in the West. It does not as much as it is being made out to be. The affluent countries get to see so little of the seemingly unreal world in poverty stricken areas that these rare efforts must move some of them at least a bit. Of course, people get to see poverty even in developed nations. There are documentaries made on them. If Indians want to see them write to the national television and ask them to telecast such programs. Indians are the ones who are used to growing up with desperate squalor around them. They are more likely to develop ‘immunity’ to the problem than foreigners. Not that all Indians are like that! The second are the myths that are made by Indians themselves and those propagated by foreigners about India. Foreigners who do not live in India or those who come to visit for only a few days, are likely to have distorted views about the country. That is not the real problem. It is how we Indians project our image that matters. I have heard Indian’s proudly claim that 90 percent of Indians know English. In a country that has a literacy rate of 64.8 percent? (That means almost a billion English speakers!) Are you kidding! What kind of mathematics is that! Admitting it does not take away the fact that India has excelled in certain fields, has remote sensing satellites orbiting the earth and is dreaming of a manned mission to the moon, and due to a burgeoning middle class rocketed by the exploding population is soon to become the country with the largest number of English speakers in the world.

It also does not take away the fact that some Indians can actually write excellent English. WB Yeats, a great poet in his own right was woefully off the mark when he wrote in a letter to his friend shortly after writing the introduction for Gitanjali (the collection of poems that won Rabindranath Tagore, arguably one of the greatest poets and writers, the nobel prize for literature), “Tagore does not know English, no Indian knows English.” That was when India was not yet independent. Things have changed now. In the year 2000, a British company which recruits teachers for UK schools, started recruiting English teachers from India with the conviction that the accent may be different but Indians could be good English teachers all the same. Indian English writers like Amitav Ghosh have proven that their cult owns the English language as much as the native authors. Professor Roger Pulvers wrote in The Japan Times about bringing more English teachers from India to Japan. Craig Storti wrote in his book Speaking of India that the problem about Indian English was more about the different speeds with which Indians usually speak English more than grammatical mistakes that makes spoken Indian English hard to grasp. The mountain is slowly being reduced to the size of a molehill. And you will agree that not many people in the US had much of a problem understanding Anil Kapoor’s Indian accent!
But I am sorry to say that I am not too proud of the kind of English that some Indian English teachers in Japan speak and there are many English teachers in schools in small towns in India who could do a far better job if only they were "discovered".

There is nothing to be ashamed about poverty. Mark Tully, former BBC correspondent in India for 25 years has often been asked by visitors to India, “How do you put up with the poverty?” I would like to quote his answer here.

Well, I think it’s a rather stupid question because whether I put up with it or not isn’t going to really affect the poverty. But I think there is one answer that can be given and that is, at least one can try to respect the poor.”

Mark Tully is speaking about Kolkata here in particular, the city in which he was born. He also says (about India), “… I tried to show the poor as people, not as objects of pity. I wanted to demonstrate that they retain their dignity inspite of the hardships they suffer…” Let us not lament about the poverty in the film.

As my Economist friend (Dr. Rajarshi Majumder) wrote to me, “I liked SM. It is a story of Hope amidst Poverty, of optimism amidst anguish, and of Love in troubled times. I really appreciate the way the movie showed that life's varied experiences, which during the time they are experienced seems so dark, also leads to a high moral confidence and capability to face problems and never loose hope. Watch it.”

The real heroes in the movie are the kids like Azharuddin and Rubina. While the former reportedly said that he was very, very very…. Happy, and the latter’s neighbor who watched her grow up commented that it was like happiness falling from the sky. There can be no doubt about their happiness. Now they are getting government flats too. I do not know whether they have become ‘millionaires’ but they have really made it out of the black hole of poverty. That is their destiny and let us rejoice.

India has never lacked talent. Here is the gauntlet for all those people who want an ‘all Indian win’ at the Oscars (if there can be something as hundred percent as that!) Since no one has ever stopped them, let all the famous filmmakers and actors/ actresses in India unite for once and make a project that wins such an ‘all Indian’ Oscar rather than cribbing about it! Jae Ho! Victory be yours!

1. Ma Tujhe Salaam are the words of a Hindi song composed by AR Rahman. It means, “I salute thee Mother.” Mother in this case is Mother India.
2. The quotation about what Mark Tully said has been taken from the audiobook Mark Tully’s India. (punctuation mine).
3. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/999985.stm ‘Indian teachers for UK schools’ (Tuesday, 31 October, 2000).
4. Sadly, the movie is yet to start showing in Japan. It will only start in the later part of April 2009 though all the other movies made last year (including super flops!) have been screened in movie theatres here. It would be interesting to see how people here react to the movie here. May be dubbing it into Japanese is taking a lot of time? Efforts are being made by NHK, the national television in Japan which produced a series of programs on India, and some Japanese authors who have started showing and writing about India with fresh insight. A welcome change maybe?
5. Unlike what is being said by many critics, this movie has many elements of popular Bollywood Hindi movies too, albeit in more refined, subtler and newly repackaged form. It has the hero, the heroine, the villains who trouble the heroine, a thriller plot, and truimph of the hero as he wins his heroine in the end, with dance and music. And, unlike many Bollywood movies, this movie does not project breaking the law as something heroic. Think about it!
6. Even Satyajit Ray was accused of ‘selling’ poverty when he made Pather Panchali in 1955. His movie was based on a novel written before independence (1929). The novel was Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay's first as a novelist and the film was Satyajit Ray's debut as a director. Five decades after Pather Panchali the film, the critics are being shameless because we still seem to have enough abundance of poverty to ‘sell’ for probably another five decades!!

1 comment:

  1. SM is a wonderful movie...I finally succeeded in watching it about a week ago. It is a feel good movie with the message of 'hope' written all over it.

    Given the kind of reaction this movie has been getting (especially) back home, it only re-inforces JFK's immortal words: "Victory has a thousand fathers, Defeat is an orphan."