Slumdog: Mother India and other India

There is no villain in Slumdog Millionaire. There are pimps and rogue policemen but no politically identifiable villain

Jawed Naqvi Delhi, Hardnews

In the Nilgiri mountains of southern India, at an altitude of 8,000 feet, French filmmaker Louis Malle found the ideal society - the Toda tribe.

In the 1960s, when the French legend made his celebrated - or notorious, if you were Indira Gandhi - documentaries on India there were only 800 Todas left. For untold centuries they had lived in the isolated mountains where solitude was undisturbed until the arrival of the British.

Certain ethnologists claimed they were of Sumerian origin. They're also said to have been descendants of Alexander's soldiers. But, the Toda believed their mother goddess waved a magic wand and magnificent buffalos emerged from the river. Hanging from a buffalo's tail was a Toda.

"No Toda girl is a virgin past the age of 13," Malle recorded in his documentary. "Before puberty, they are entrusted to an experienced male to learn lovemaking. These lessons are part of their education, just like singing and cooking. Sex is a natural need and throughout their lives, the Toda practice free love."

In fact, the Toda language had no word for sex. They used the words ‘fruit' or ‘food'. Children didn't go to school. Their education came from their contact with nature. "The Toda have never waged war, never had weapons. They have no laws, leaders or hierarchy." Malle may have described the kind of people that Beatle John Lennon would have liked all of us to become. Indira Gandhi, who had not watched the film, banished Malle after non-resident Indians, who saw it in Europe, whined about it. They complained to one of the Indian embassies about the negative publicity the documentary was doing for India.

However, the other day, India's political class, led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, cheered Slumdog Millionaire when the movie, based on a story about Mumbai slum-dwellers, won eight Oscars. Of course, there is no comparison between an award-winning feature film and a reviled documentary film, just as there is no comparison between their directors. And yet, the different reaction to each reveals a common thread.

Thanks to rapid economic changes in the last two decades, India's social divide runs along a 30:70 equation - 300 million Indians in the market, 700 million nowhere near it. Filmmakers entirely and film-watchers mostly belong to the 30 per cent of the middle classes. To that extent both Malle and Danny Boyle can be accused of social voyeurism, as they both deal with themes on the wrong side of the class divide. But what accounts for the different reactions they got?

For one, Malle's film threatened the middle classes, which Slumdog didn't. He held India's political class responsible, by suggestion, for the imminent harm the idyllic Toda community faced. Moreover, he shattered the illusion of Mrs Gandhi's anti-poverty populism and questioned the axiom of the socialist, democratic republic of India. He turned the State virtually into a villain. Was he wrong? Well, today Indian newspapers are frequently replete with reports of how young tribal girls are being turned unwed mothers by the civilised half of India.

By contrast, there is no villain in Slumdog Millionaire. There are pimps and rogue policemen but no politically identifiable villain. This is a remarkable new trend in Indian movies, particularly those that create dreams popular among non-resident Indians.

These movies are mostly bereft of a political or a social context. There could be no better bargain for the ruling elite at home - a treasure trove of coveted awards, thanks to people living in dehumanised squalor with no aspersions cast or responsibility assigned for their hapless state. As a palliative, the film depicts the officially sanctioned collective dream to get rich quick. The only way, we are asked to believe, to survive in the mega superpower in the making.

To make a movie about those that do not have the means, other than a drug-like illusion offered by the film to crawl out of their misery is to mock their poverty. The illusion was less insulting in the past. Mother India, for example, was the first Indian movie to be nominated for the Oscars but it missed the award by a whisker in the foreign films category. That was way back in 1958.

A box-office triumph at home, the film's heroine bore a strong resemblance to Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage. It depicted the courageous saga of an Indian peasant woman who took on the wily village moneylender who was responsible for her many tragedies. In a manner of speaking, the changing faces of the villains in Indian cinema have marked the evolution of the national polity.

It is not a flattering thought. The epidemic of suicides by indebted farmers across the country shows that the money-lending class is thriving though they may have moved out of the frame as the nation's arch villain. Many of them have joined politics.

With time, new classes of villains came to the fore. Just until a few decades ago, a stockbroker, for example, whose antics keep today's Parliament glued to the Sensex, was denounced as an evil man. The Hindi word for the bourse, satta bazaar, conjured images of a criminal lot that lured gullible Indians to wrack and ruin. Today, a stockbroker is idolised as a guru of sorts.

Leading actors like Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar all took turns to depict heroes that fell for the trap of easy lucre. The capitalist, too, was what he is seen today even in the western hemisphere - satanic, with his insatiable greed for more wealth and accumulation. The priestly class was regarded with suspicion and contempt. Religious bigots were censured, for example in Dharamputra. In some movies, the partition of India was the villain, for instance in Garam Hawa and Chhaliya.

In the 1970s, the ubiquitous smuggler became a big-time villain. Today, he runs the country's parallel economy. Among the many uses it lends itself to, parallel banking has become a lifeline for terrorists and (reportedly) section of leading filmmakers alike. In whatever form, it is a curious mix: the underworld that finances certain movies that paint the bomb-planting terrorist as the nation's new villain, turns the financial wheels of terrorism itself, or so the story goes. But Slumdog cannot be accused of such small-time villainy.

It has a far higher purpose, as the applause from India's political and corporate class reveals. At a time when global capitalism lies reduced to rubble, Slumdog gives legitimacy to the much discredited system that avowedly breeds inequality. Worse, it raises a false hope that with a little bit of luck every slum-dweller has even chances to become a millionaire, not an original idea given the fact that capitalism itself has survived by promoting similar fiction about equal odds.

It would be preposterous to expect cinema to supplant politics as a campaigner for social causes. Mother India could not have weeded out the ruthless moneylender from the country much as it highlighted the evil that the class represents, nor could a brilliantly told story of Footpath have exorcised India of the deceptive lure of social mobility based on avaricious speculation at the bourse -- even the earthquake on Wall Street could not quite shake that incorrigible resolve. The success of a movie like Slumdog, therefore, betrays a systemic failure of the national polity, which is to say that some of the people who should have been at the forefront to harness the revolutionary energy that lies stifled in the sprawling slums of the country, have instead joined the applause. They have acknowledged their inability to usher the change they were expected to work for.

When in 1993, the slums of Mumbai became the target of intense communal frenzy, the worst casualty was the solidarity which otherwise existed among its poor and dispossessed inhabitants. In a sense, the same formula was applied on a wider scale in Gujarat, where the pogroms against a specific community were used to destroy working class solidarity that had stood as a wall against an economic model in which the poor were going to be increasingly shortchanged and marginalised. Slumdog works for the same objective but without the bloodletting. If someone wants to kill a gate meeting of agitated workers at the local mill all they have to do is to fling and scatter fake currency notes in the air. That's what this movie does.

The writer is the India correspondent of Pakistan English daily Dawn