Sunday, January 18, 2009

Slumdog or Millionaire - a piece of art is always a piece of art

This is in reference with the age old debate about a piece of art depicting Indian poverty supposedly getting more attention in the west. The recent instance of such a debate has erupted after the success of the movie 'Slum dog Millionaire'. Amitabh Bachchan has expressed his unhappiness over West's obsession to portray India in poor light.


Very obviously whenever it comes to internationally acclaimed Indian movies, dealing with poverty, the name of Satyajit Ray creeps in. Many people have the habit to  reinforce the point, that West acclaims only those movies which depict poverty,  by saying that Ray's popularity in the West is mainly because of the portrayal  of poor India in his 'Apu Trilogy' and other movies. Well, I believe these people who say that Ray has depicted the poverty and the darker side of India are obviously those who don't understand Bengali or even can't appreciate a movie by reading subtitles or might not have even seen the movies. A piece of  art is always a piece of art and it has nothing to do with what it depicts. A  piece of art becomes a masterpiece only when it transcends the topic with which  it deals and arouses a universal appeal to all people across cultural and social  boundaries. Even when you read the original novel by Bibhutibhushan Banerjee, based on which the Apu Trilogy has been made, the poverty or the struggle of the  kids Apu and Durga never seem to bother you. It might not even strike that they are so poor. It's the life of the kids, it's the thrill with which they fill  their life - their sheer joy in drenching in rains, their sheer excitement in  seeing a train for the first time in their life, the sorrow of losing a sister,  the sorrow of leaving their home town for ever, the wonders of settling in a new  place, the way Apu slowly grows amidst new environments - his thirst for  knowledge, his surprises at the nooks and corners of Calcutta during his college  days, his marriage in a very remarkable situation, his very short married life  and the pains of losing his wife and then finally his relationship with his kid  - covers a complete life of a person. The life is complete with all its sorrows, pains, happiness, wonders, mysteries and excitement. It's a life full of optimism. It's a life which is like a song - that evokes a emotional symphony of varied notes. It doesn't matter whether Apu belongs to a small village in Bengal or Iran or Virginia or Timbuktu or Honolulu. Apu could have been a rich kid also and still had the similar share of joy and sorrows and excitement. The background and the context in which the story is told become immaterial in front of the feeling that you get out of it. That's what the requirement of a masterpiece is. 


Most of the masterpieces happen to deal with poverty. This is perhaps because the "sweetest songs are those which tell us of the saddest thoughts". Perhaps the struggle of a poor person appeals more to an artist than a rich life. The same is true even for the Hollywood movies. Do you ever feel that "How Green Was My Valley" portrays poverty? No never. It's again about a kid who recalls his childhood which was not very extravagant or affluent. Still he misses his life, which was full of struggle. But for the kid the life was full of fun and excitement - the same fun and joy that fills Apu's life. Even 'Gone With the Wind’ also shows poverty to a large extent alongside the extravagance of the rich people. 


But that doesn't mean a movie has to deal with poverty to be a classic. Movies like 'Last Emperor', or 'Harry Potter' are classics even though they have nothing to do with poverty. Each type of movie has its own appeal and reach. There's no specific rule to become a classic. Anything that touches the heart and stays in your mind for a very long time is a classic.


Finally it's not that all movies portraying Indian poverty have been acclaimed in the west. ‘City of Joy' was a disaster though it might have portrayed poverty and slums even more than the recent 'Slumdog Millionaire'. But the movie was not received well in the west because the movie was really a crap. I believe if a movie is good and has a universal appeal, it becomes a classic and attracts viewers worldwide.  It has nothing to do with what it portrays!!


Sudipto Das said...

By Mukesh

People forget that it is just a movie ! I was specially amazed at the criticism from the folks in the film industry (AB, A Ghosh et al ). Looks like they are riding on the coat tails of the movie) to retain their fifteen minutes of fame or is it the worry of being overshadowed ?

The classic example of making the best of a bad situation is Karnataka Soaps and Detergents Ltd’s (KSDL’S). They had signed on Dhoni (yes our cannot put a step wrong cricket captain) when he was at the beginning of his career, far an advertisement campaign (Mysore Sandal Soap) for a sum which was a fortune for him at that point of time, but is a pittance now. So apparently when his rates skyrocketed he had a ‘mis understanding’ with KSDL (I am being careful here in case I get sued, but than again it might be a good idea because I may get my fifteen minutes of fame J), the case went to court (his sports management company is ‘negotiating’ with KSDL). I asked my source in KSDL as to why they are not insisting on enforcing the contract. His response was as long as it is in the court KSDL gets free publicity (Dhoni summoned to court in KSDL’s case etc etc). So KSDL has made best of a bad situation and it is a win win for all !

So maybe it is a tinge of jealousy … I mean who ever thought that Anil Kapoor would be a cynosure in Oscars and other film awards et al ? It must be a shock for the big boys of the hindi film industry, wallowing in glory during Indian film awards (oops may be it should be the hindi film awards) at Dubai and other international locations. By the way in most of our films (specially during the 70s and 80s) the heroes were/are slum dog millionaires … The heroines’ fathers routinely offer them blank cheques to ‘meri beti ki Zindagi se chale jao (get out of my daughter’s life). The mothers routinely pound on their sewing machines or whatever is the modern equivalent while the underdog sons come bounding in with ‘maa meine first class first aa gaya’ (I topped the class). But the hero still does not get a job as others with influence or money grab the jobs. Their sisters are routinely raped (you have to give the hero a cause to fight do not you ?) etc etc. However at the end of it all he gets the girl and the father in law’s business and there is a happy family portrait. Is not this the same plot ? so what are they cribbing about ??

I was impressed with the book Q&A. Though my reading has reduced drastically, in my younger days I used to read Indian authors like RK Narayan. Mulk Raj Anand, Khushwanth Singh etc. I must confess that though some of their books were not as interesting as the Alistair Macleans, James Hadley Chases, Harold Robbinss or the Irving Wallaces etc etc. I needed to read them as they were back up for the questions : what are your hobbies (reading) who are you favourite authors (RKN, MRA) during my SSB (Service Selection Board)/other interview days. I did not want to be seen a thriller junkey hooked on to the James Hadley Chases. Vikas Swarup, the author of Q&A wanted to write an Indian thriller (he said Indian authors were too literary and there was a gap in the market) and he succeeded. I could relate to the book because a problem (on factorization) which I solved at High school saved me (when I was doing CA) by re-appearing in my CA intermediate examination. As I was terrible at Maths, this helped me to just about scrape through my math paper. Of course getting 14/15 questions in succession is extremely unlikely but than books and dreams (and movies) are the made of such stuff ! It is to the credit of the makers of this film that they were able to take the plot and churn out a typical bollywoodian masala with the boy getting the girl at the end of the film et al. So may be some of the folks in the movie industry are worried about the British invasion of Bollywood !

Any way the movie has made money, has got great reviews, my friends who have seen are raving about it and lots of people are planning to see it. So to all its critics : Sorry folks. You are entitled to your opinion but hardly any one is buying it. And Kudos to everyone connected to the film, specially those from the slums and the fresh faces. Enjoy your moment in the sun. At the end of the day it is just a movie and a good one at that. And as for the ‘buri nazare wale’, thera moo kala !!

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