Slumdog Lessons

Slumdog Lessons

Why does a movie made for a mere $15 million, with a cast unknown in the West, a locale unfamiliar to Western eyes, and 1/3rd spoken in Hindi (not English) manage to sweep the Oscars.  Yes it was a very well-made movie, but so were several of the other contenders.

Here is my  take. In these challenging times when the most capitalist major country in the world is turning “socialist” without uttering the words, when we learn that leaders in business and economy mis-spoke and mis-directed ( remember the “mental recession” comment from former Senator Phil Gramm last July), Slumdog Millionaire is a breath of innocent fresh air. Here is a protagonist who is simple and not cynical.  At a time when the graduates of top business schools have taken us the down the tubes,  Slumdog is the perhaps the ultimate reality show; we can see the lot of someone whose life is definitely worse than our own (as Western residents).  Jamal takes a lot a sh*T (literally and figuratively) but goes on to inspire us. Slumdog is a movie for the times. It may not have done so well in good times.  I am not surprised that it had early trouble getting a distributor. Thank God that Fox Searchlight had the vision to take the risk.

What about the impression of India that Slumdog creates? Many in India have are inflamed or at least embarrassed by the conditions of the slums as depicted in the movie. Well, dear reader, the residents of that Mumbai slum actually have life better than perhaps 700 million Indian who survive on a mere $2 per day. Most live in rural India.  I travel to Mumbai often and most people who live there came from somewhere else.  Even among the poorest Mumbai residents whom I have spoken to, I have never yet heard anyone tell me that they are sorry they moved there or that would be happy to move back to their home town or village.

India has now arrived on the world stage in all its glory, warts and everything. Sure Tata and Reliance are world-class Indian companies, each in their unique way. Sure Indian-born Laxmi Mittal is one of the richest men in the world.  Sure the United States supported India is a unique nuclear power agreement that broke 36 years of nuclear isolation.

But as a free society, India is mature enough for the world to look at any aspect of its existence.  Brutal movies such as The Godfather, Gangs of New York, and Chicago, did not make the world think more poorly of America.  India need not apologize for the slums. I disagree with those that talk about Danny Boyle creating “poverty porn“. If you fly into Mumbai during the day, you can help noticing the slums of  Dharavi as you land. If you spend any serious time in India, you can’t escape the evidend of the poverty and squalor. But things are getting better. Hiding them from Western eyes is not only impossible it i also counterproductive.

My company publishes a newsletter about international trade with India/China called “Globalization is Great”. Slumdog is the a triumph of globalization. Brits and Indian working together create a movie distributed by an American studio. It is a triumph of religious integration. AR Rahman, who won two Oscar the music and songs in the movie, was born a Hindu but converted to Islam. The female lead, Freida Pinto is Christian (in a country where just 2% of the population follows that religion). The film is distinctly British in its flavor, as 1983 Best Picture winner Gandhi was. But it does not talk down to India, the former British colony.

I am all for Slumdog and am happy that it won all the awards that it did win.


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