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Slumdog Millionaire: the prejudice continues?

By: Saurav Basu
Jan-17-2009
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Back in the good old days when Satyajit Ray often made the most sublime neo-realistic cinema, one Ms. Nargis Dutt caustically charged him with selling Indian poverty abroad. Yet, Satyajit Ray"s films did not feature Calcutta"s slums but the villages of Bengal. There was an undercurrent of poverty in his major films like Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Pratidwandhi but there was human irony. No romanticizing poverty yet ultimately a resounding affirmation of human dignity. Who can forget the immortal scene in Aparajito where a guilt ridden Apu, a poor Brahmana boy rejects his priestly duties towards his mother"s last rites and opts to pursue a modern education instead. Ray"s father was a Brahmo and he himself a recalcitrant Hindu, yet his cinema encompassed everything that represented the best and the worst of Indian civilization ethos.

Through the vicissitudes of times, India has emerged as a global economy shedding both its Nehruvian rate of growth and the associated stereotypes, although we are admittedly a third world country with sub Saharan level hunger and human development indices. Yet, a share of its misfortune may be attributed to being surrounded by two failed states whose burdens of jihadi terrorism and poverty India has to suffer. Even the slum is an artificial socio-political construct and misrepresents Indian poverty. Indian slums have unpaid electricity accounts yet even today thousands of Indian villages wait electrification; slums have NGOs operating in vain while villages still await their first permanent school buildings. Slums create and sustain criminals yet millions of Indian villages represent a morally and ethical superior way of life and hospitality. Slums in India are infested by some over 30-40 million illegal Bangladeshi migrants who constitute a sizable secular votebank.

But contemporary film making seems to have appreciated little of these ground realities; instead we find a rehash of the old and improbable rags to riches story in an ultra-regressive style. A magnificent Mumbai slum, two Muslim brothers, a Hindu mob killing innocent Muslim women, criminally amputated children singing Surdas"s songs, Hindu policemen torturing an innocent Muslim boy and a diabolic Hindu game-show host who hands his Muslim contestant to his Hindu police which hates the Amnesty international, and voila, you have all the ingredients for a "secular" potboiler which is on the road to the Oscars! You might argue that it"s not realistic but only fantasy since there is greater probability of winning the jackpot on a lottery ticket without being abused by the police than winning the top prize on a quiz show with 15 unique questions.

But then you can be kidding with the graphic depiction of blood curdling anti Muslim riot in which a Hindu mob slits the children"s mother, the Indian policeman electrocuting the Muslim suspect or the gory scene of the amputation of the street children by the mafia who are then forced to sing Surdas"s bhajans. The book by Vikas Swarup has the main protagonist named as Ram Mohammad Thomas who was conveniently transformed into a Muslim boy, Jamal Malik who lost his mother to a Hindu mob to make it sound in the author"s own confession more "politically correct."

When was the last time in Indian History when an unprovoked Hindu population took to violence? For the record the Mumbai riots were incited by fanatical Muslim mobs in the face of the Baburi Masjid demolition. Moreover, it beats me how the consequent Mumbai bomb blasts triggered by local Muslim gangs can be disassociated from the Mumbai riots? And the much maligned Bombay Police recently lost sixteen of its bravest men while defending the city"s freedom of speech and expression against Islamist zealots who wanted to replicate in India, a 7th century Arabia.

More disturbingly, you have the depiction of the blue bodied Rama whom Hindus consider as Maryada Puroshottam [the best among men] threatening to terminate the existence of the innocent Muslim children. To a question on with which weapons is Lord Rama depicted with in popular iconography, Jamal Malik the protagonist does not remember the grand Ram Lilas which happen across the country or Ram Kathas on televisions. Instead, a Hindu kid dressed like immaculately like Lord Rama stand in the mid of a slum in a threatening pose. And one cannot miss the hatred being portrayed in the face and looks of that young Hindu kid, younger than even Jamaal. Even a 5 year old Hindu kid is a communal bigot and Rama is responsible for all the communal crap. Muslims are seculars and victims by definition. And we need one white director to tell these things to the whole world. Not only this we have forcibly amputated children singing Surdas"s bhajan pining for a glimpse of illusory Krishna? This insensitive jaundiced anti Hindu view is reminiscent of Indian leftist cinema where Hindu male characters are black and Muslims white! Remember, Mr and Mrs Iyer where a Hindu mob was searching for circumcised dicks and didn"t even spare a Jew in true Nazi fashion! Never mind that in world history, Hindus are the only people who don"t carry an atom of anti-Semitism, but the director"s flight of "secularist" fancy won critical acclaim. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya in his film Uttara shows a band of Hindu goons burning a Christian church made in service of the lord"s lepers and raping an orphan girl in the process. Expectedly, this rather original gruesome way of story-telling won him the national awards! In the Tamil hit, Dasavathaaram, we find an anti-historical situation fantasizing Shaivite intolerance against Vaishnavs where Ramanujam"s disciple is shown fighting Kulothunga Chola. Based on a solitary description of Chola antagonism in Ramanujam"s writings, we discover the Chola fanatic stealing the idol of Vishnu from Srirangam, ironically the same temple complex which was plundered at least five times by Islamic armies. Similarly, Kamal Hassan in his movie "Anbe Sivam", shows a pious Shiva devotee injuring the hero who is rescued by a group of benevolent Christian nuns. Previously, in the 70s when anti-Brahmana movement in Tamil Nadu was at its peak, we had Brahmana priests routinely paraded as rascals in Tamil movies.

"Islamic" sensitivities have extracted book bans from both British and Congress governments. Girja Kumar in his "Book on Trial" has reproduced dozens of cases where Hindu books critical of Islam or the Prophet were banned, and the authors faced arrest or were killed. Salman Rushdie"s flight and Taslima Nasrin"s plight is well known. Lajja almost faced a ban because she had exposed the genocide against Hindus in Bangladesh. Movies on the state of Kashmiri pundits, victims of Islamic genocide against Hindus of Bangladeshis, the Hindu victims of the North East against Christian separatism and also the historical crimes by the armies of Islam and inquisitory Christianity are taboo in a "secular country" They cannot see the light of the day because they are inimical to communal harmony and hurt minority sentiments.

This ostentatious display of anti Hindu sentiment is of course lost on the jingoists or those ABCDs who go gaga over such pernicious cinema. Sincere critics questioning the dumb plot where a slum boy grows up into a sophisticated leftist JNU product with a flawless English accent are censured by appealing to the authority of the Golden globe awards. They keenly forget the film was precisely designed for that, appeal to the racial sensitivities of those who really matter! Therefore, even the liberation of Jamal is not through out of any indigenous worth, but through an internationally funded poverty alleviation game show [Kaun Banega Crorepati recedes into its international avatar, Who wants to become a millionaire].


Saurav Basu

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