Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A reality check

In keeping with the flavour of the season, here's a quiz question for your thought menu. Now that Slumdog Millionaire has romped home with a sackful of Oscars, the next time a scraggly, street kid sidles up to your car window and stretches out a tiny, pleading, desperate hand, will you, a) grumpily order your driver to hit the accelerator and quickly drive ahead; b) slink lower into the plush leather of your seat and squirm in awkward guilt; c) place a Rs 10 note in the child's hand and feel better; or- d) crib about how India can't hope to make a mark in the world if beggar children swarm our streets? Make no mistake; I loved the film.

Even before the Oscars provided the carpers in Urban India with a legitimate alibi to love it as well, I found the entire debate around whether Danny Boyle was guilty of 'exploiting poverty' both false and petty. On the contrary, I thought the movie succeeded marvellously at capturing the can-do spirit of India, while being mercilessly honest in chronicling its underbelly.

unrealistic? Perhaps. But only as much as the angry-young man allegories of the '70s, when Amitabh Bachchan could single-handedly eliminate the bad guys.

Would the West have reacted in the same way had an Indian made the same film? Maybe not, but so what? That doesn't mean the film should have been held up to a different ethical standard than our own movies. Frankly, I thought a lot of the cribbing was rooted in xenophobic insecurity.

But have you noticed how the Oscar win has suddenly papered over all the differences? Other than a handful of staunch naysayers, much of India is now exulting in the global recognition. We can't get enough of what Freida Pinto wore on the red carpet, and what Angelina Jolie said to her and whether 'Jai Ho' is now an international chant.

So, in a matter of days, the discourse has conveniently changed from complaining about the 'outsiders' exploiting us to celebrating how the "outsiders" are finally recognising us. In other words, we didn't like being confronted with the naked truth of our slums; but we sure as hell love the Oscars.

What does this paradoxical response tell us about ourselves as a people? My guess is that New India quite simply got accustomed to being branded in terms of Bangalore rather than beggars. In our self-image we were home to the world's outsourcing capital; not to Asia's largest slum.

After decades of being stereotyped in postcard images of poverty and saffron saints, we wanted the visual memory of India to be radically different. The dapper Wall Street Banker now defined the Indian Diaspora instead of the Gujarati newsstand owner.

We were tired of being asked preposterous questions about how we spoke such good English (so what if "we" just made up about 3-5 per cent of our country). And by the time Forbes figured out that some Indians were stinking rich, we were vicariously celebrating our new branding in the global imagination.

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