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An India where anything is possible

February 20, 2009 21:14 IST
Early last September when I headed to the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, a film publicist asked me to look out for a film called Slumdog Millionaire. When I asked him what the film was about, he mentioned that it was Danny Boyle's new work set in India and starring Indian actors Anil Kapoor and Irrfan Khan.

But when the official programme released one day before the start of the fest Slumdog was not listed. Mercifully the film did show up as a sneak peak.

I later learnt that the film's new distributor -- Fox Searchlight -- was testing it with a small audience of genuine film lovers at Telluride, before they took it to the larger and more showy set-up at the Toronto International Film Festival.

I saw the film at the first night screening there. Salman Rushdie and Nandita Das were in the audience along with Boyle who was watching the film with the first American audience. "There is a phrase in India -- 'dil se'," he said before the screening. "We made the film from the heart!"

That night I was completely blown away by what I saw on the giant screen -- an explosion of images from Mumbai slums and elsewhere -- populated by likeable young characters, maneuvering themselves in a world of harsh realities.

The film left me breathless, with sections in flashback as the lead actor progresses on the Who Wants to be a Millionaire? show, highly charged images, fast-paced cinematography, sharp editing and a brilliant loud soundtrack from A R Rahman.

And the audience response was tremendous, with repeated sold out screenings. Boyle must have sensed he had a winner in hand -- a feeling that was solidified when the following week the film won the People's Choice Award in Toronto.

I dubbed Slumdog as Boyle's homage to Mumbai and Bollywood, and said this was a rare film that captured the ethos of the Indian popular cinema and would crossover to the mainstream Western audience. Bollywood baffles Western audiences. A few filmmakers have attempted to adapt the tone of Bollywood to their films, but most end up making a mockery of Indian popular cinema, perhaps barring Baz Luhrmann -- who actually captured the language of Bollywood musicals in his Moulin Rouge!

But now it was clear. Boyle, a Manchester-born filmmaker had finally cracked the Bollywood code. Slumdog has Bollywood written all over it and yet it is a very Western film, with a strong narrative arc, a beginning, middle and end, and characters that develop.

Nobody -- not even Boyle -- would have anticipated Slumdog to reach to this level, with exuberant reviews, a big box office success and sweeping practically every award and nomination. And now we wait for the ultimate crowning achievement -- a potential sweep of the Oscars on February 22, as a lot of people are already predicting.

The Slumdog train is unstoppable, even though there are people out there who are trying to derail the film's success. These include filmmakers in India who are envious that a British director is getting the glory and recognition for an Indian story; people in India and the Diaspora who are very uncomfortable with any sort of negative images of their country projected by the Western media; others who have issues with the Bollywood tones; and some who complain that it is not loud and over-the-top or not enough of a Bollywood film.

Look at the attacks on the film, from Amitabh Bachchan in his blog -- even though he has since changed his position and reportedly made peace with Boyle, to people protesting outside Kapoor's house and all the way in Patna where innocent slum dwellers are being brainwashed by politicians who seem to be upset at the word slumdog. They failed to understand that scriptwriter Simon Beaufoy was so clever to merge the words slum dweller and underdog and coin slumdog.

These people forget or perhaps do not know how earnest Boyle is when he talks about his genuine respect for Mumbai -- the city, its citizens and especially for people who worked with him in front of and behind the camera. It was Boyle's respect for casting director Loveleen Tandon and the support she gave him during the making of the film that resulted in her getting the co-director billing. This is a rare instance in the film business where people usually tend to be self-absorbed and far less giving.

Slumdog is a classic underdog story -- something most Americans relate to. Its hero -- the very likeable Jamal Malik, played by three winnable actors (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Taney Chheda and Dev Patel) -- struggles through so much hardship, torture and personal tragedies to find his childhood sweetheart. The film represents a slice of Indian life -- a lot of reality, laced with fantasy, escapism and a solid upbeat ending.

Slumdog is finally a piece of entertainment and it is hard to believe a lot of the criticism is coming from Bollywood insiders who maintain a very low benchmark for Indian commercial films. They get upset that their own films do not succeed in the US -- beyond the South Asian Diaspora and a sprinkling of other Americans. But when it comes to a film that borrows from Bollywood, yet stands on its own and is very well appreciated in the West, the same people get envious, jealous, critical and even dismissive.

As an Indian living in the US for over 27 years and as an entertainment writer, this has been a hugely exciting time for me. I get a lot of pride and joy with all the recognition Slumdog is getting. I keep telling Americans that this film reflects the realities of India. It is also an important statement about the new India.

Boyle's Slumdog is a hopeful look at today's India, a country brimming with the attitude that anything is possible. It is a powerful reflection of a country that was tied up in shackles with flawed socialist visions. Everybody -- from the slum dwellers to the middle class young adults who work in call centres to the rich elite and even the gangsters -- wants a piece of the booming India, And nothing seems to be able to stop them. Lives are hard for the poor, but nobody sits and wallows in self pity. They take action to improve their lives. They find a way to move on up, just a Jamal somehow manages to get on the big quiz show.

Western audiences tend to like that spirit. Slumdog has created a renewed image of India in the minds of American who often do not focus on foreign nations. Boyle has graced India with this gift and we should be grateful to him.

Aseem Chhabra