Slumdog Millionaire, Indo-British movies and Oscars

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The four Golden Globe winner, Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” swept the Oscars, winning eight awards. I loved the movie. The first part of it was extremely good and actually has a very Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay kind of touch to it. The second half of the movie is a little less intense if you know what I mean. Overall, it’s a good watch for sure. Dev Patel plays the main protagonist and has done an amazing job. The movie takes audiences to the poorest sections of India and shows a level of poverty and human misery that’s almost beyond our imaginations and yet so pervasive that people seem to take it in, as a consistent fact. The movie gives education as to how people live their lives in India. The story is about Jamal and his elder bossy brother Salim, from their childhood to adulthood. Their life in the slums of Mumbai and their hard events in life from getting an autograph of Amitabh Bachchan, losing their mother in Hindu-Muslim riots to the exploitative begging mafia teaching them lessons. As a matter of luck, destiny or a mere co-incidence Jamal gets to participate in “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire”, and he has the answers of the questions asked through his life’s happenings.

This movie swept through the Oscars, and yet, the only rejoicing I see in Indian newspapers is at A R Rahman’s Oscars. Our issues with the movie apart, the question is if we even believe it is an Indian movie.

Is “Slumdog Millionaire” a Hollywood movie, a British movie, or an Indian one? I watched the news on BBC the other day and found them referring to the movie as a British movie – Danny Boyle, the director, is British after all. Hollywood treats Slumdog as an American movie, entering it in the Oscars under the main category instead of ‘Foreign film’ which is what other movies set in India usually end up in.

What makes a movie Indian? Is it an Indian movie if the director is Indian, if the producer is, if the cast is Indian or if the movie is set in India? I’d say a movie is certainly Indian if it is set in India. In the case of Slumdog, the cast is also either Indian or of Indian origin. So then why do we consider Slumdog a British movie? Does the director’s nationality alone determine the where the movie belongs to? On that basis, then, should we consider Elizabeth to be an Indian movie because it was directed by Shekhar Kapur? Does the producer’s nationality make a difference? Saawariya was co-produced by Sony Pictures Entertainment, but that does not make it any less Indian in our eyes. So why do we hesitate to embrace Slumdog Millionaire? Granted, most of the crew is British. But even then, Slumdog Millionaire is at best an Indo-British movie, not a British movie. Gandhi, on that basis, was also Indo-British, and interestingly, the first Indian Oscar (Bhanu Athaiya) came from Gandhi.

Many of us believe there are many Bollywood movies that are far better than Slumdog Millionaire, yet none of these received any Oscars. Obviously, this was because all these movies competed in the “Best Foreign Film” category, and not in the mainstream category, where you can compete for many more Oscars. The lesson for Indian filmmakers should be – sell the North American distribution rights to a US studio that will make a push for the movie at the Oscars. We know that the Oscars are not just about having a good product but also about how well you market it to the judges.

But the million dollar question remains – why do Indians care so much for the Oscars anyway? The Oscars are, at their core, just an awards ceremeony for Hollywood movies, never mind their nod to foreign films with a single category. Why does Bollywood need Hollywood’s approval?

Bollywood (and Tamil and Telugu) movies, with their song and dance routines have their own international appeal in the Middle East and Africa and parts of Europe. We’ve all heard anecdotes of Raj Kapoor’s popularity in Russia and of Rajnikanth’s in Japan. If Hollywood epitomizes the West, Indian movies epitomize the East. Our movie industry is just as big (or, in terms of the sheer number of movies annually, bigger) than Hollywood. In many parts of the world, it is even more popular than any Hollywood movie.

And yet, we seem to crave for approval from the Oscars. I cannot understand why….

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