by Mridu Khullar
- USA/India -
A few days ago, after weeks of avoiding it, I finally watched Slumdog Millionaire.
The reason I'd put it off for as long as I had wasn't because as a journalist from India currently in the Bay Area, I felt the pressure of giving a long, insightful critique of the film to my non-Indian colleagues. Nor because of the controversy and debates that would inevitably require me to pick a side and try to explain away the complexities of India, which clearly can't be explained away.
It was simply because having endured some awful movies about India in the past, I didn't want to watch yet another foreigner's misrepresentation of something he didn't understand.
But when an Indian friend wrote to me and said, "It's just like any other Bollywood movie," I sat up and took notice.
Could the Brits actually pull a Bollywood?
So I watched, and was transported into a bygone era.
Fifteen years ago, as a child growing up in India, I had a staple diet of Bollywood film. Those were the days before DVDs, or even cable, and each weekend, my family bundled up together to watch the scheduled Saturday and Sunday movies on the government-run channel.
The days when an Amitabh Bachchan movie was on, were the sweetest. Cups of tea flowed freely, more often than not the movie would drag, but we'd watch anyway. Microwavable popcorn had still not arrived on the scene, neither indeed had microwaves. Peanuts were our snack food of choice.
Bollywood, for many of my generation, became the guide to relationships, career success, and life itself. When Bollywood heroes and heroines were plunging to their deaths Romeo-and-Juliet style, there was nothing more romantic than going to war with your family over the man you loved. When that became passé, and family values started gaining traction, friends of mine started spouting movie lines of the "I will never get married without my parents' blessing" variety.
But it takes more than one good romance to make a Bollywood flick, well, tick. Back in the seventies and eighties, it required the "angry young man" who would fight the world and often come out the winner. In the three hours that it would take him to get from zero to hero, he would endure torture, fight with mobsters, win and lose the girl he loved, gain riches, and find the girl again.
Anyone who complains about the torture scene in Slumdog Millionaire has clearly never seen a Hindi movie. (Or, for that matter, 24.)
The "poverty porn" or the "seedy side of India," which even Bollywood actors have taken offense to, don't hold a candle to the even seedier sides these actors have played on-screen.
If anything, Slumdog Millionaire in all its clichés and nice-guys-can-finish-first sentimentality may have been a nod to the Hindi movie industry of yesteryear.
In Slumdog Millionaire, there are glimpses of movies from the seventies. The most common (and perhaps clichéd) scenes of Hindi movies are found in plentiful: the protagonist and his brother lose their mother to communal riots. On a rainy night, they take in a new friend. They run from gangsters and are able to escape by grabbing onto a running train. They save the girl from prostitution. The brothers become polar opposites of each other – one a nice guy, the other a gangster. The nice guy wins a fortune and – in the end – the girl. The other dies.
A Bollywood formula, if there ever was one.
In the 2000s, I entered my twenties, and Bollywood too, matured. The world had changed. Global values had started to seep in and Hindi films were increasingly being shot in foreign countries. Microwavable popcorn had arrived in India.
My friends and I were watching more Hollywood than Bollywood, and as I turned into a woman of my own, once-role models now started looking like male-dependent creatures who really needed to get a life (or at least a job).
Instead of any Bollywood flick, the unfortunate Bride and Prejudice turned out to be more like my life than I would have liked. I went freelance, fell in love with an English guy I had judged before knowing, and took far longer than I should have to realize it.
Indians haven't been too impressed with a movie that is, in effect, "just like another Bollywood movie." For a director who came to India as an outsider and had multitudes of opportunities to become the dreaded judgmental foreigner, that's as high a compliment as he can get.
For all the energy that has been spent on making fun of Bollywood by Indians and foreigners alike, it's ironic that the contender for the Oscars is one that encompasses the absolute best and worst of it.
For me, an Indian missing home in America, the movie brought back through the director's lens, a taste of home. A Bollywood of the past, mixed with a vision of the future. In all the clichés, an ode to a cinema of my childhood.
As for my own Englishman, after repeatedly being turned down, he doggedly chased me, annoyed me, and continued to love me. And like Slumdog's protagonist, simply refused to take no for an answer.
Maybe the Brits can pull a Bollywood after all.
Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
About the Author
Mridu Khullar is an independent journalist from New Delhi, India. For the past six years, she has written extensively about human rights and women's issues in Asia and Africa. Her work has been published in Time, Elle, Marie Claire, Ms., Women’s eNews, and East West, among others.
Khullar is currently a Visiting Scholar at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. Visit her website at www.mridukhullar.com.