For the most part, India stayed out of mainstream Hollywood movies between 1985 and 2000.
During the same time period, India’s economy was changing forever. The economic liberalization laws of the early 1990s opened up India’s doors and paved the way for its gigantic economic climb. Anyone who has lived in a major metro will tell you that the India of the 1980s looked nothing like the India of the 2000s.
India was ready for a new identity. The dominant movie images of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom no longer held any relevance (if they ever did). This was a new country, and it needed a new narrative to tell the world. They wanted something that showed how far they had come. They wanted a story to showcase how an entire class of New Indians had emerged.
They got Slumdog Millionaire.
- Release Date: November 12, 2008
- Box Office Revenue: $377 million
- Ranking: #14 Worldwide for 2008
- Other Top Movies of 2008: The Dark Knight, Kung Fu Panda, Iron Man
Slumdog Millionaire is the current definitive Hollywood movie about India for the masses of people who will likely never travel to India. This movie holds a special place in my heart because it was released just before I came to India, so it truly served as part of my education. My mind was basically a blank slate when it came to modern-day India.
Audiences in the West really enjoyed the movie, and what’s not to love? It has a young hero, down on his luck, with an unwavering belief in true love. He overcomes powerful enemies to save the day and gets the girl in the end. Add in a colorful background, some social commentary, and Indian-ish lead characters, and you have an Oscar. Hooray for India! We love you!
Yet, everywhere you turned, Indians were speaking out against the movie. Why would they criticize a movie that brought a country back to the forefront of the world’s mind? Why would they not love a movie that showcases Indian dance, food, and celebrities? Why are they being so #Thinskinned about it?
Professor Shyamal Sengupta called it a “white man’s imagined India. It’s not quite snake charmers, but it’s close. It’s a poverty tour.”
Director Priyadarshan said, “The West loves to see us as a wasteland, filled with horror stories of exploitation and degradation. But is that all there is to our beautiful city of Mumbai? Let them give as many Oscars as they like. We don’t need to be impressed.”
Filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan said it was a “…very anti-Indian film. All the bad elements of Mumbai commercial cinema are put together and in a very a slick way. And it underlines and endorses what the West thinks of us. It is falsehood built up on falsehood.”
What’s going on?
Let’s take a step back and see what the fuss is about. The movie tells the story of Jamal Malik, a poor Muslim boy from Mumbai. His mother is killed in the 1992 Bombay Riots where Hindu and Muslim communities attacked each other. He and his brother experience being part of a child gang, being pickpockets and becoming impromptu tour guides. All along, Jamal is trying to save his true love, Latika, from a powerful gangster.
Here are some of the subtexts that are reinforced in the movie:
Corruption is a way of life. Everyone is getting paid off and doing dirty work behind someone’s back. At nearly every stage, Jamal is confronted with a corrupt system.
India is one horrible experience after another for the poor. Jamal’s journey take him from one extreme atrocity to another with each experience dipping deeper into societal loathing.
Don’t trust the poor. Jamal and his brother engage in lots of activities that the poor have been associated with: pickpocketing, stealing shoes, refilling water bottles with dirty water, etc. And if you give to the poor, they are probably giving that money to someone else.
It’s not that Indians deny the elements those subtexts that are based in reality. Corruption, poverty, social ills, and reinforcing stereotypes come up in many Indian films as well. But it’s their country. Most outsiders never earn the right to criticize their new home. Danny Boyle even admitted that he took up the movie partly because he was unfamiliar with India. So, it becomes a little tense when a less-informed outsider gets to tell the story of India’s poor to the world.
A New Standard
So, what is India left with? Did they get the landmark movie they were hoping for? While certainly an improvement over Indiana Jones and James Bond, Slumdog Millionaire might have just updated the stereotypes.
Racial rioting replaces human sacrificing. Indian mafia dons replace psycho Thuggee priests. And exploitative child labor shifts to the streets from the mines.
While Slumdog’s stereotypes might be grounded in more reality than Indiana Jones, you can see why Indians weren’t extraordinarily thrilled with the movie or its popularity.
Slumdog Millionaire will likely continue to dominate the uninformed West’s awareness about India for years to come, so Indians must be content to live with it as the standard for now. It does offer the outsider a very brief and incomplete look at a portion of India, but it should be heavily accompanied by many other resources.
We’ll close this series next week with another modern film that looks at the oldest and most pervasive stereotype about India.