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The great Indian dream

Why “Slumdog Millionaire”, a film made in India, draws crowds in New York


Judging by my last experience of catching a film at the cinemas in America (‘Burn After Reading’ by the Coens opened to a handful of people), I didn’t think there would be too many people in the hall to watch a film made in India six weeks after its release.

To my surprise, it was almost a full house. “Slumdog Millionaire” was yet to pick up the Globes (that would happen a week later). So it was pretty much the underdog film that was generating plenty of word-of-mouth.

So was the trip to Angelika Film Centre in New York worth every bit of the $12 ticket?

Well, the film does not give you any time to analyse or evaluate. Which could probably explain the four-on-four score at the Globes.

Like in “Trainspotting”, Danny Boyle’s characters are on drugs. Almost.

Cinema has that effect on us Indians and Boyle seems to know that too well. The slums of Mumbai are a great take off point for his protagonists to go PlaneSpotting.

The tickets to Escape-City are through the lost lanes of Mumbai and the crowded halls of Hindi cinema. In the context of modern day India, fables are manufactured as reality shows.

According to Boyle, there’s just one man who represents the Great Indian Dream. The Anti-Establishment Angry Young Man-turned-Demi-God who then became a system itself playing Dream Merchant as the face of the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”.

Though Boyle has his “Slum-Dog” spell it out as Amitabh Bachchan, it is unfortunate that he could not convince His Bigness to play himself. And it’s understandable why Bachchan Senior would have turned it down. He would’ve played his fictitious real self, borderline evil and given his larger-than-life persona, there was no way he was going to risk his image getting lost between fact and fiction.

Surprised that the unlikely contestant from the slum knows all the answers, the seemingly charming host of the show during a loo-break decides to “help” the underdog by leaving on the bathroom mirror a finger-written alphabet (trying to imply that ‘B’ was probably the right answer, the one from the multiple choice that will help him make his million). You have to watch the film to feel the goose flesh and to find out what happens next but for now, just imagine Bachchan doing the role and leaving the ‘B’ behind and contrast it with the autograph he signs for the slum kid earlier on in the film (we only see Bachchan’s left hand scribble a quickie) to spawn a generation of fans.

The point is that Slumdog is no ordinary masala film but it pretends to be one and almost convinces us that it is a product Ram Gopal Varma and Fernando Meirelles put together in a hurry under pressure from producers who wanted them to make something like “Satya”, “Company” and “City of God” all in one movie.

The brilliance of Boyle’s masterpiece lies in the subtext, the context and the layering of the intellectual, the subversive and the irreverent. Which is also why it works at various levels. Though it may just be seen as a pure masala escapade in India and the subtext may be entirely ignored given our sensibility and the gratification we seek from our cinema — escape.

Many of our arty critics here may even be tempted to call its outing at the Globes a fluke because of the “lack of realism or logic”, but that’s only because we are desensitised and even under-whelmed by the clichés and chaos of Indian cinema.

But for the rest of the world, it’s everything they almost knew about India and its cinema told to them in a way they could not have ever imagined.

It’s seemingly candid, energetic and edgy, raw and reckless.

It’s life as seen by an urchin sprinting through the slums of a nation that likes to lose itself in cinema.

A nation that is proving to be debonair with its street-smartness in a world where information is power.

A nation where dreams and reality could both be larger than life and cinema itself.

SUDHISH KAMATH

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