Indians calling for the banning of hit film Slumdog Millionaire are displaying a very skewed sense of priority, says Salil Tripathi
It was only a matter of time before someone in India rained – or dumped garbage — on the parade of Danny Boyle’s film, Slumdog Millionaire, the entertaining rags-to-riches story of a boy from a slum getting the girl of his dreams after undergoing life-changing, harsh experiences. Everyone expects the film to win big at BAFTA, and later this month, at the Oscars. But the mood in India is sour.
Amitabh Bachchan, Bollywood’s greatest star (who is actually part of the plot, as the answer to the hero Jamal’s first question on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire), was the first to complain, saying that the film showed India as ‘a dirty under belly third world country (sic)’ when poverty exists even in wealthy cities.
He wrote this on his ponderous blog, bigb.bigadda.com. Since then he clarified that he was only repeating what others had told him, but the damage was done.
When the film was released in India, some theatres were attacked, its posters defaced, and in some cities, cinema halls required police protection. Lawsuits have been filed against the film. Driven by the wounded pride of nationalism, class, and religion, groups have been attacking the first India-themed film since Sir Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi with a realistic chance of sweeping major international awards.
The late Andy Warhol could have had the India of today on his mind when he said in 1968 that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. Claiming his quarter hour this week is Tapeshwar Vishwakarma, general secretary of Slum Dwellers’ Joint Action Committee. He says Boyle’s film humiliates the poor, terms the title as a slur that violates his human rights, and wants the film banned. A municipal councillor in Mumbai, Nicolas Almeida, doesn’t mind the film being screened, but wants the court to change its name to Slumdash Millionaire, since “dog” is offensive to the poor.
The targets of Vishwakarma’s case, interestingly, are the Oscar-nominated music director AR Rahman and actor Anil Kapoor, the most recognisable Indian star in the acting ensemble, and not Boyle, the film’s director, or Simon Beaufoy, who wrote the film and coined the title. Protestors have held banners saying ‘Poverty not for sale’
and “We are not dogs” in front of Kapoor’s house in Mumbai. That the targets of the suit are the two prominent Indians, and not the film-maker or screenwriter, shows that the aim is to get domestic publicity, not international justice. (Neither Kapoor nor Rahman had anything to do with naming the film: Kapoor, in fact, is donating his fees to an NGO that looks after children in slums).
Indian courts are notorious for admitting spurious petitions by aggrieved lawyers suing celebrities over imagined slights. Richard Gere and Shilpa Shetty were sued after Gere kissed Shetty at an AIDS charity event. The Supreme Court had to intervene to stop the matter.
Other higher courts have admonished lawyers in cases filed against MF Husain, India’s greatest painter, who has often painted Hindu goddesses in the nude. But those verdicts have not prevented litigants in smaller towns like Ghaziabad and Pandharpur from launching flimsy cases.
Now Hindu nationalists have stepped in. Seizing on the scene early in the film, when a mob of Hindus attacks a Muslim slum, killing many, including the mother of Jamal and Salim, the two brothers around whose lives the narrative is built, nationalists have complained that the film showed a young boy, dressed as Rama, staring menacingly at the boys freshly orphaned. One website says it makes Rama, a Hindu god, look like a terrorist. A mob in Panjim in Goa threw stones at a multiplex which showed the film, and the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti (Hindu People’s Awakening Committee) asked for the film to be banned.
It is an odd reflection of Indian priorities, that so much heat is generated to attack the film. A similar attack on removing poverty would work wonders; it would also make Slumdog Millionaire truly fictional, instead of mirroring India’s very real ‘dirty underbelly’.