It has been over a week since Slumdog Millionaire was released in India amidst lot of hype & hoopla...some genuine and some manufactured. With a string of awards and nominations in its kitty, none of the so -called Indian film critics have had the courage to see beneath the surface of the story as well as the film. They've played safe by giving it the highest ratings...fearing that a critical rating of such a highly decorated film may raise questions on their own competence perhaps.
From all that I've read about the film and Vikas Swarup's novel (on which it is based) and watched on TV (infinite no. of interviews of Danny Boyle, Loveleen Tandan, Anil Kapoor & the lot), the film is essentially about a poor slum boy hitting the jackpot in a TV game show just by chance and making it good. So it is his sheer fortune / luck that plays a role in extricating him from the dehumanized existence in the slums.
What's so great and different about the story? For centuries, Indian masses have been fed on stories (filmy & otherwise) teaching them that it's all in their fatelines. Fate...that has been the big factor in determining who you are, what you are and why you are what you are. So if you happen to be poor, deprived, disempowered and dehumanized, don't complain...simply accept it because that's your destiny. It couldn't have been any other way! Wait patiently till lady luck turns her gaze at you. This is what the Brahmins patronized by the then ruling classes told people and this is what today's Brahmins (writers, filmmakers, journalists etc.) patronized by today's ruling classes tell people.
Making people fatalistic helps in curbing any sort of dissent or disenchantment with the existing status quo, thereby facilitating the loot and plunder by a minuscule group of people- kings & feudal lords then and the ruling elite now. It kills belief in one's own abilities and the power within each one of us. And people with low self-esteem and lacking in self-confidence are vulnerable and thus easier to manipulate.
Slumdog Millionaire (like almost all other bollywood, mollywood and tollywood productions) in fact seems to be reinforcing this age old myth. Blame it on the novel, some would say as that's where the script has originated. I disagree! For a film to be good and for a director to be celebrated, it's not just enough to have good production values and cinematic techniques. It has to help the society move forward by helping question the status quo. Merely `realistic' representation of poverty and squalor is not enough. By not daring to go beyond what all the Indian films have already been doing, Danny Boyle has wasted an opportunity.
Those of you who have watched the film must think and recall if anything in the film ever prompted you to ask yourself and others – why do people have to live in slums...who's responsible for their sub-human existence...who gains from it & how...why don't the slumdwellers themselves revolt against the system that puts them there in the first place...is something being done to give every citizen a minimum quality of life in this country?
I suspect most of you would reply in the negative. And that's where Slumdog fails to rise to the occasion, stand up & be counted. But a Film Director is a creative guy, not a politician or social reformer...why should he be expected to rise to the occasion, you may ask? Well, think coolly...don't you think Slumdog is a political film? Every film is. The film is being celebrated not by the masses whose life it shows on-screen but certain classes who benefit from the `fate induced empowerment' shown in the film. And exactly who belongs to these classes ? Think again. Are these the ones who benefit from the slum citizenry?
Why blame only Danny Boyle when our own cinema keeps betraying us on this front all the time. All our films invariably revolve around a `hero' – an individual who embodies all the right virtues, rises to every occasion and fights against injustice & exploitation singlehandedly. All the while he is bashing & thrashing the villains, hundreds of people stand around watching silently even though the `hero' is fighting for their cause. It could be corruption, sexual harassment, crime, injustice etc. which they all encounter every single moment of their lives. But no, they are shown as impotent...incapable of joining the fight and turning it into a collective one which is what it should have been from the very beginning (Rang De Basanti tried to deviate from this path a wee bit though).
I'm not denying the role of `individual' courage in sparking something positive but there are numerous instances where it's the `collective' that has helped bring about change. In fact, they are umbilically related and not mutually exclusive as our films project. The recent court judgments in Jessica Lal, Nitish Katara or Priyadarshini Mattoo cases illustrate this relationship clearly. While it were the individual family members who showed the guts to take on the high & mighty in the courts, the role of the `collective' at large in shaping public opinion, communicating the same to the powers that be and boosting the morale of these `individuals' time & again deserves acknowledgement. Mahatma Gandhi couldn't have succeeded in gaining independence had there been no public participation..were he to fight like our filmy hero.
Then why is it that our films choose to ignore the `collective'? I'm sure it's not a mere coincidence!
Helping maintain status quo – that's what these films do by rubbing-in retrogressive messages all the time. And when one keeps on getting bombarded by these hidden messages, one does start believing in them and joins the `sterile' crowd as a passive & helpless bystander.
And that is where Slumdog Millionaire fails us and morphs into a piece of artistic self indulgence. What is there to celebrate then?
With recession and economic depression ruling our lives today, how many of us would wait till we get on to a game show like Kaun Banega Crorepati (Who'll be a Millionaire) and hit the jackpot? And how many of us would like to get together and exert ourselves individually & collectively (through various means of democratic expression & action at our disposal) to deal with the crisis and turn it on its head?? Our answer to these two questions shall determine our destiny as a people.