you must have heard by now that slumdog millionaire (SM) has cleaned up at the oscars. i've not watched the film yet, but hope to do so some time soon.
if you've been following the publicity around the film, you'll know that there has been a lot of controversy in india about it. there has been much protest and anger. some of this relates to the perceived exploitation of the young children from the slums that acted in the film, and of poverty in general. some of it relates to the negative portrayal of bombay (and hence of india), considered to be in bad taste after the recent attacks.
amitabh bachchan, one of india's most famous and well known actors and the first host of india's version of "who wants to be a millionaire", came out with a scathing attack on the film:
if SM projects India as [a] third-world, dirty, underbelly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky underbelly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations.
this and other comments by him (later denied) could easily be written off as professional jealousy. bachchan is a much, much better actor than anil kapoor (who plays the host of the TV show in SM) and his films have had much greater commercial success, yet has never received recognition in the west to the extent of being able to walk the red carpet at the oscars.
it's easy to dismiss the defensiveness of many indians about the negativity of the film. in the context of the film water, it made me angry that there were attempts to stop filming mostly on the basis of national pride. i'd be the first to say that issues like this need to be aired. simon morris, in reviewing the film, writes off the criticisms by saying (and i paraphrase) that the film is as much a portrayal of all of bombay as "oliver twist" was a portrayal of the whole of london.
however, there is a difference between "oliver twist" and SM, and that difference is context. the context is that the majority of portrayals in the west of india (and indeed most asian, african & middle eastern countries) are overwhelmingly negative. with a history of colonisation and contempt of coloured people, these negative portrayals are often used to point a finger of accusation, to support a feeling of smug superiority in those living in the west. it's as if there's a jeering undertone of "look at how those savages live; aren't we so much better than them". of course, england being one of the colonising countries never had to face that kind of environment. so in that sense, oliver twist is not really an adequate comparison.
i have to say that i have some sympathy with this view. i too get heartily sick of the moral superiority, and the lack of recognition that much of the poverty has been a result of colonial powers syphoning off the wealth of the country back to the homeland, with little thought of how the natives would survive and prosper. i get sick of the glossing over of unfair trade practices and the continuing apetite of the west to consume products that they know full well were produced using less than adequate (and sometimes horrific) labour practices. it's as if the problems in developing countries exist in isolation, with westerners taking no responsibility for their own actions and institutions which seek to perpetuate injustice and poverty.
in that context, many indians will look at SM as yet another in a long line of western spotlights that ignore the beauty, the rich history, the diverse cultures and languages of india. another negative spotlight in a long line of negative spotlights. whether this view is nationalism and patriotism at its worst or a reasonable backlash against centuries of racism is hard to say. or what i mean is that i can identify with both points of view, and will have to wait til i see the film before i can decide between them!