In India, Talk About 'Slumdog Millionaire' Focuses on Depiction of Slums

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 23, 2009

MUMBAI, India, Jan. 22 -- With his bright-orange shirt confidently unbuttoned, Ajay Choudhary, 16, slipped past busy teahouses and garbage-strewn alleys in this Juhu slum to show off his shanty with its pink-painted concrete and tin roof, two rooms for a family of seven. It is one of many such dwellings in the dense shantytowns depicted in the award-winning movie "Slumdog Millionaire."

"The foreigners came, and they filmed our place!" Choudhary said, beaming as his brother -- wearing a tank top and wrap-around sunglasses -- slapped him on the back. "We were so proud that the world and the movie people want to see our slums."

"Slumdog Millionaire" will be released Friday in theaters across India, in English and Hindi. But the gritty film -- nominated Thursday for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director -- has already sparked protests from some of India's actual millionaires and Bollywood actors, who proclaim the film offensive for its focus on the darker aspects of Indian life. Some Mumbai tabloids are calling it a "slum slam" or "poverty porn."

One of India's iconic Hindi film heroes, Amitabh Bachchan, whose likeness appears in the movie as the object of a slum child's adoration, criticized the film for portraying a poverty-stricken India. Big B, as he is known in India, wrote in his blog that if the movie "projects India as [a] Third World, dirty under belly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky under belly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations."

Some of Mumbai's poor also are taking offense. On Thursday, a small band of slum residents, organized by a social activist, held up banners reading "Poverty for Sale" and "I am not a dog" outside the home of Anil Kapoor, one of the film's stars.

But many more slum residents -- the people who keep this teeming metropolis running by working as drivers, tea wallahs (or vendors), cobblers, laundry men and tailors -- say it's about time they received some attention in a country that tries to present itself as a success story, better known for its booming economy and its growing roster of millionaires than for the mayhem of its slums, among the world's largest. They say slumdogs are underdogs who deserve a film about their lives.

"Maybe fortunes will come our way now, because people will know about us," said Ravi Kumar, 25, a chai wallah who made milky tea for the crew during the filming. "Usually there are only films about rich people. In India, we don't like to see the common man on screen."

The rags-to-riches love story compresses the extremes of India into a frenetic, 120-minute tale that includes communal riots, flashy game shows, young hipsters at call centers and mountains of garbage being gleaned by ragpickers. The film chronicles the journey of Jamal Malik, a slum dweller who becomes a contestant on the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

Calling him a "slumdog," the authorities arrest Jamal for cheating -- how else would a poor boy from the slums be able to answer the game show's questions? During the interrogation and torture, Jamal's life unfolds in a series of flashbacks that shed light on how he came to know the answers.

"Slumdog" is perhaps the first mainstream movie since Richard Attenborough's 1982 epic "Gandhi" -- which won eight Oscars -- to present an unflinching portrait of India's abject poverty, its crime, corruption and communal tensions. In a first for any Indian, A.R. Rahman was nominated for three Oscars in music categories. The movie is also part of a growing body of literature and artwork that has debunked the idea of an India Shining, the country of call centers and shopping malls. Books such as Aravind Adiga's Man Booker Prize-winning "The White Tiger" -- about a boy prodigy in a rural Indian village who is denied education -- have been lauded as a more honest view of India for the majority of the population that still lives in grinding poverty.

British filmmaker Danny Boyle, who also made "Trainspotting," set "Slumdog Millionaire" to the beat of pulsating electronica, Indian music and British punk rock, and the film jumps from wrenching scenes of a gifted child singer who is blinded to improve his earning potential as a street urchin to more playful scenes of slum children stealing a train ride 1,200 kilometers from the southern city of Mumbai to the Taj Mahal in Agra, where they fleece tourists by pretending to be tour guides.

It's almost unheard of for Bollywood filmmakers to shoot in the labyrinthine poverty of the Mumbai's slums. India's film industry is better known for its rollicking, four-hour, song-and-dance extravaganzas, which are escapist, melodramatic fairy tales that are typically filmed in Switzerland, Australia or New Jersey.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company