At the Jaipur Literature Festival on January 22nd, celebrations were the order of the evening. “Slumdog Millionaire” had just been nominated for ten Oscars, best original song among them. Gulzar, the songwriter of “Jai ho”, the first Hindi song nominated for the honour, was in attendance. When Gulzar was asked about the controversies surrounding the hotly anticipated Indian debut of the film, he changed the subject: “Why do you want to talk about negative things. Let us celebrate the positive development. [The nominations are] the biggest honour for the country’s entertainment industry.”
While the Academy Award nominations have returned India to the centre of the cinematic stage for the first time since 1982, when “Gandhi”
was in the running for 11 awards, this time around not all of the attention has been appreciated. In India, “Slumdog Millionare” has provoked protests from slum dwellers, arguments among actual millionaires and middling box office receipts.
Use of the word “slumdog” to describe residents of India’s ubiquitous tenement settlements has set off angry demonstrations across the country. Simon Beaufoy
, a British screenwriter, admitted that he had just “made up the word”
. Although he “didn't mean to offend anyone”, he has hit a nerve in the class-sensitive former colony. Vijay Singh Bhardwaj, representing a group of angry slum dwellers
in Chandigarh, the shared capital of the Punjab and Haryana states, fumed that “the name of the film depicts the sick mentality of Britishers…even so many years after independence the mindset of English people have not changed towards Indians”. In Patna, the capital of the eastern state Bihar, protestors
have filed a complaint against the film and threatened to “burn [director] Danny Boyle's effigies”. The impoverished families of the children who played the young protagonists in “Slumdog Millionare” have even begun to complain about their meagre compensation
The controversy over the film has affected India’s chattering class. Some entrepreneurs such as the co-founder of Infosys
, one of the largest Indian IT companies, have praised the film’s inspirational message. Arindam Chaudhur
, the humble editor-in-chief of India’s self-proclaimed “Greatest News Magazine”
, respectfully disagreed. Amitabh Bachchan, a Bollywood legend who makes a fictional appearance in the film (inspiring the young slumdog to jump into a pile of human excrement in the hopes of getting an autograph), initiated the Indian backlash when he disparaged the film on his blog. But the post has since been removed, and he has now expressed his tepid support for “Slumdog Millionaire”.
Together the English and Hindi-versions pulled in a respectable
£ 1.9m over the opening weekend, even though many showings were sparsely attended.
Kunaal Roy Kapur, an Indian director, lent some insight into his country’s mixed reception to this sensitive import. While Indians are familiar with the stories of poverty and hardship that surround them, when this reality is depicted on screen they “feel exposed…because gone are the glamorous maharajas and peacocks and in comes a boy covered in shit.”
Still, “Ad Age” believes “Slumdog Millionaire” is “well on its way to becoming a hit in India. In the show business at least, it seems that any publicity is indeed good publicity.”
~ CORBIN HIAR
Picture credit: G0SUB (via Flickr)