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Indians don’t feel good about ‘Slumdog Millionaire’

Even as American audiences gush over “Slumdog Millionaire,” some Indians are groaning over what they see as yet another stereotypical foreign depiction of their nation, accentuating squalor, corruption and impoverished-if-resilient natives.

“Slumdog,” which earned 10 Oscar nominations this week, including one for best picture, is set in Mumbai, is based on an Indian novel and features many Indian actors. Yet the sensibility is anything but Indian, some critics argue. They attribute the film’s sweeping international success in large part to its timing and themes that touch a chord with Western audiences.

“It’s a white man’s imagined India,” said Shyamal Sengupta, a film professor at the Whistling Woods International institute in Mumbai. “It’s not quite snake charmers, but it’s close. It’s a poverty tour.”

The story of an orphaned street urchin, Jamal Malik, overcoming hardship to win a fortune on a game show and walk away with his childhood sweetheart -- capped by a Bollywood ending of dance, song, love and fame -- provides a salve for a world beset by collapsing banks, jobs and nest eggs, some here say.

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The film, which bagged four Golden Globe awards this month, was released in the United States days before Mumbai came under attack by a team of militants. That may have strengthened its connection with foreign viewers, analysts said.

Mumbai was an ideal backdrop for the international production, wrote Vikram Doctor, a columnist in India’s Economic Times, since it is a “cutting-edge, if rather crummy, place” that has slums along with the sort of posh restaurants favored by the global glitterati. “Who, after all, is interested in unremitting squalor, sameness and sadness?” the column said.

“Slumdog’s” mix of Indian and foreign talent, and English and Hindi dialogue, has sparked a debate here over whether it’s an Indian or foreign film. It was based on a novel by Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, directed by Briton Danny Boyle, best known for “Trainspotting,” adapted by British screenwriter Simon Beaufoy of “Full Monty” fame, and acted by Indians and foreigners of Indian descent. Fox Searchlight and Warner Bros. are handling distribution in India.

“These ideas, that there are still moments of joy in the slum, appeal to Western critics,” said Aseem Chhabra, an Asia Foundation associate fellow and culture critic.

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Others, such as Shekhar Kapur, who directed “Elizabeth” (1998), argue that for all intents and purposes it’s Indian. “What’s most relevant is that ‘Slumdog’ is the most successful Indian film ever,” he said. “It was directed by a British director and funded by a European company, but so what?. . . . Foreign crews are very common in Indian films now.”

“Slumdog” cost $15 million to produce but has already earned more than $50 million in the U.S. and elsewhere. It saw its Indian premiere Thursday, in Mumbai, and began screening with the original soundtrack or completely in Hindi on Friday in 400 theaters in 81 cities.

At the star-studded premiere, Boyle responded to criticism here that the film focused too much on prostitution, crime and organized begging rackets, saying that he sought to depict the “breathtaking resilience” of Mumbai and the “joy of people despite their circumstances, that lust for life.”

For some, the underdog theme is not so much irrelevant as passe. Rags-to-riches tales dominated Bollywood from the late 1950s through the early 1980s as India worked to lift itself from hunger and poverty.

With the nation’s rising standard of living and greater exposure to foreign culture, Bollywood has increasingly turned its attention to relationships and other middle-class concerns.

“Within the film world, there’s a desire to move beyond the working class and lower sectors of society,” said Tejaswini Ganti, an anthropologist and Bollywood expert at New York University.

The ambivalence some Indians feel toward the movie doesn’t preclude it from becoming a roaring commercial success in India, experts said. “There is still a fascination with seeing how we are perceived by white Westerners,” said Sengupta, the Mumbai film professor. “It’s a kind of voyeurism.”

Many in Bollywood also have transferred onto “Slumdog” their hopes for an “Indian” Oscar after homegrown favorite “Taare Zameen Par” failed to garner a nomination. “Taare,” about a dyslexic child who finds an outlet through art, was the latest in a string of Oscar letdowns dating to 2002.

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Between rolls of their eyes, critics here point to other foreign depictions over the years that they consider inaccurate, distorted or obsessed with poverty and squalor, including “Phantom India,” “Salaam Bombay” and “City of Joy,” in which a Western doctor played by Patrick Swayze arrives to save India.

Some add that the criticism of “Slumdog” may be less about getting it wrong than its focus on issues some in India would rather downplay.

The world’s second-most populous country after China has seen enormous benefits from globalization. But “Slumdog” raises questions about the price paid by those left behind and the cost in eroding morality, seen in the portrayal of Salim, Jamal’s gangster-in-training brother. For India, this hits a nerve, after a top Indian IT outsourcing firm, Satyam, reported this month that it had faked profits.

“A lot of people felt it was bashing India, but I disagree,” said Rochona Majumdar, an Indian film expert at the University of Chicago. “We’re too quick to celebrate ‘Incredible India,’ she said, referring to an Indian tourism slogan. “But there is an underbelly. To say we don’t have problems is absurd.”

Salman Ali, 12, lives those problems. He’s been on his own as long as he can remember, he said. Dressed in a ragged T-shirt, filthy pants and bare feet, he sleeps under Mumbai’s Mahim pipeline, a local landmark featured in “Slumdog” amid the Technicolor water, toxic electronic waste and petroleum sludge. He earns a few dollars a week recycling garbage or begging on the nearby overpass.

Sometimes police beat him up, he said. And several times gangs have attacked him and stolen what little he has. Sure, he’d love to appear on a game show like Jamal did in the film and become a millionaire.

But however hard he tries to make money, Salman said, he never gets ahead. His dream is to become a Bollywood star one day. And whenever a film crew shows up to shoot amid the squalor, he tries to get their attention. But he said they never pick him. “Who wouldn’t want to be a millionaire?” he said.

A few miles away, in the maze of alleys that make up Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum and another backdrop for the film, some said the plot sounded too close to real life and therefore not interesting, whereas others said they wanted to see how it depicted their neighborhood.

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Homemaker Lakshmi Nagaraj Iyer, 26, said she had trouble with the get-rich-quick premise. “I feel it’s a wrong route,” she declared. “We barely get by, but the answer is education and hard work, not a quick fix.”

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

Pavitra Ramaswamy in The Times’ New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.


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