The film Slumdog Millionaire is billed as the feel-good film of the year, enjoying both critical acclaim and commercial success in English-speaking countries around the world.
Almost comically, the film about an Indian orphan who chances on millionaire-success while appearing on a quiz show modelled on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire has only just been released in Asia to what would be termed “mixed” critical reviews in the region. The fact that Asians do not like foreigners making their points for them has been brought out by the plethora of film reviews sent to me by my Indian and other Asian friends.
In the spirit of the film itself, and to make the viewing decisions more dramatic if not compelling, I present below a list of multiple-choice questions for the benefit of Asia Times Online readers.
1. The protagonist of the film Slumdog Millionaire is:
a. An orphan working as a tea boy
b. A Caste-based politician
c. An Indian criminal leading a mafia group
d. A hardworking educated Indian
2. The preferred method of torture in Indian police stations as per the film:
b. Attacked by mad dogs
c. Being forced to dance on broken glass
d. Watching a typical Bollywood film
3. The brother of the film’s hero becomes what after growing up:
a. A rapist mafia underling
b. A violent psychopath
c. Hardworking and self-effacing coolie
d. A local politician
4. The little boy with the hero is blinded because:
a. Blind beggars earn more than sighted ones
b. He cannot then escape the beggar mafia
c. He was eyeing the don’s daughter
d. His eyes are needed to give sight to a rich Indian
5. The female lead in the movie becomes what in order to survive:
c. Exotic but virginal dancer
d. Female suicide bomber
6. When the hero as a child jumps into his own fecess in order to get an autograph from a movie star, what social observation is being made:
a. India’s poor are desperate to take every chance they can get
b. Muslims have to denigrate themselves to live in India
c. It is actually cow dung and therefore good for Indians to bathe in
d. Indians have no toilets
7. The American tourist taken in by the hero’s guile at Agra does what after discovering the tires of his car have been stolen:
a. Gives the hero a hundred dollars
b. Sends him to Guantanomo Bay
c. Bombs Iraq and Afghanistan
d. Shrugs and walks away
8. The call center that the hero works in has staff serving customers in which foreign country:
a. The UK
c. United States of America
9. What particular sport is shown as the favorite of Indians:
b. Field Hockey
10. The seminal one-liner in the film relates to the death of the hero’s mother. He says: “But for X and Y, my mother would still be alive.” X and Y are:
a. Ram and Allah
b. Gandhi and Jinnah
c. Destiny and luck
d. Marx and Nehru
Spoiler alert: To avoid the suspense, the correct answer is (a) in all cases; (c) would be the answer in a Bollywood film while (d) is the answer I would have gone for or created should such a venture ever come under my purview.
Notes: Despite living in one of the world’s poorest countries by many measures, Indian middle classes love to fantasize about a beautiful and peaceful country all around them that is growing at much the same breakneck pace as the Indian economy itself was until very recently. Mention the millions of destitute peasants and their eyes usually glaze over: you will be beseeched to look at the dynamic information technology corridors of the country, the blazing economic growth and ballooning savings across the corporate and individual sectors.
As a general rule, I detest Indian films (“Bollywood” in the vernacular), my golden rule remains that watching any five minutes of the usually sorry 200-minute sagas is enough to provide all the necessary plot and acting details that one would want to glean out of sheer intellectual curiosity. To the reel, these films are poorly scripted, awfully directed and acted out even worse; as if a retinue of 17th-century Shakespeare actors from the theater had suddenly been resurrected.
Thus it is almost poetic justice that when an “Indian” film comes along to critical acclaim one discovers all too quickly that the main parts – production and direction – were helmed by foreigners and even the acting was left to people of Indian descent rather than “true” Indians, by and large.
There is much to hate in this film, and it certainly doesn’t appear as a “feel-good” venture by a long shot. Still what it brings to the table in terms of realism as well as presenting vast vignettes of unintended comedy through the use of mixed metaphors makes the experience worthwhile. In particular, I heartily recommend the film to the Indian middle classes and in particular to anyone still harboring communist sympathies in the country.
For what it shows above all else is that the most important ingredient of any emerging economy is the dynamics of development. Political and religious differences matter little when the basic impetus to growth and progress is missing. This is precisely the case in India today where the government gets away with making welfare payments but without infrastructure investments; where communist sympathizers monopolize the distribution of government funds to the point where waste is a national pastime and the frustrations of the underclass are ever increasing.
It is not a big exaggeration to highlight the importance of this film for Indians. That said, it is highly likely that Indians would themselves like to pretend that the film was never made, particularly if it fails to win any further accolades. For that reason alone, perhaps this film deserves to secure an Academy Award. For how many other times can these awards actually claim to have to reset the course of a billion people?