Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Slum Dog Debate - Ruminations

Mushrooming issues on the Slum Dog Millionaire, blown, as usual, out of proportion by the media have let loose a barrage of blogs and forwards. I don’t mind the former but the latter - -can’t ignore them since they jam my inbox.

I spoke to a couple of people -both in the US – who saw the film-one in the theatre, the other at home. Both were raving about it. One admitted she couldn’t watch a few scenes – kept her eyes closed. The other, a little younger, had no complaints. I asked them about the Bachchan’s ‘underbelly’ comment. They echoed Irfan Khan’s views that if there is an underbelly, shoving it under the carpet doesn’t make it non-existent. One cannot wish away nor will away certain things.

Now about the originator of the ‘underbelly’ comment. It is surprising that such a politically correct person like MR. Bachchan should have used the idiom ‘‘underbelly”. Even idioms have to be used with discretion. When the issue is sensitive, and the referent is the underprivileged and the deprived who are struggling not just to survive, but also to celebrate life despite the rough deal life doled out to them, one should refrain using a word which, viewed outside its status as an idiom, refers to an offensive image - revolting part of the animal anatomy here. Bachchan may not have thought too much about the word underbelly as he, like a person at home with the language, would have thought only about total lexical output of the term. But he ought to have learnt a lesson from VS Achuthanandan’s recent “dog” episode (Dogs seem to dog India of late). The man was using a Malayalam idiom to mean an emphatic ‘no one’– an idiom used very commonly in Malayalam. But the referent being a person who died a hero’s death, and to whom the whole the whole nation was passionately grateful, the “dog’ ceased to be viewed in the context of the idiom. To make matters worse, in translation it was all the more offensive, in the absence of a similar idiomatic expression in thee English language.

Now, the social activist Nicholas Almeida has taken up the grouse of the Dharavi residents who are bristling at being referred to as Dogs. Legitimate anger and protest.

Let’s not forget that it is not their fault that they were born to live in a slum. Nor can we appropriate the credit for being born in a privileged class. Some unseen hand decided it that way. The least we can do is to refrain from using derogatory terms to refer to the less fortunate. What is underbelly to Bachchan is life to them. This terrible disparity in wealth ownership should make us hang our heads in shame, for we enjoy at their cost. There is no law of economics or philosophy that can counter this truth.

But one word in defence of Bachchan. he made this comment in his blog. Blogsphere is private sphere.

Now regarding the allegation that the movie is trying to project a saleable image of India, I can’t comment on it till I see it. But this I know. Any one who makes an India based English movie or an Indian who writes in English will be accused of catering to the western stereotyped expectations about India. In some cases this is true. In some, it is not. But the fact remains that when we write a novel in English, or make a movie in English, we become subliminally conscious of the takers – the English speaking audience and the English movie viewers. There is a possibility that the writer/movie maker will become, not quite realising it perhaps, vulnerable to the market trends. I suppose economics has a large part to play in this. The investment in the project might go down the drain if she/he ignores the market.

So what am I saying? That all Indian writers in English and the filmmakers in English who make India based movies never present empirical truth? Well. I don’t mean that. I am only saying that one can expect to find an element of stereotyping in such films. That is inevitable. But the question is, is it deliberate distortion to please a western audience? The answer is linked to the purpose of the project. Is it success at the box office, or an honest effort at a truthful represention of the writer's/movie maker’s perception of the truth about India? In the case of the former, both the movie and the book will not hold attention. In the case of the latter, honesty will pay, despite the fact that her/his perception of India is his/her own, and not necessarily the empirical truth.

Now the question arises as to what is the truth about India or any issue for that matter? Where does truth lie? Well, no one has patented truth. No one has a proprietary right over truth. Like Gandhi said, it is like a many faceted diamond and a seeker of truth can handle only a few at a time.

My experience of India is different from that of a resident of Dharavi or a farmer who struggles with the weather gods in Tamilnadu, or a Toda tribal of the Nilgiris or the middle class urban dweller of the metros or the reeking rich living all over the country or a British film maker whose knowledge of India began with textbooks. All these experiences of India are true. Our perception of truth is shaped by our experience of it. We should therefore be large enough to give as much space as possible to an artist who tries to represent India the way he/she perceives it. Artistic truth is reality as perceived by the artist and representation of it in a truthful fashion. About the market place, if an artist decides to present truth in a manner that provides aesthetic pleasure but refrain from distorting the truth as he has internalized it, no one should complain. The sum total of all these representation will take us a little near the truth.

Remember Keats’ words. “Truth is beauty, beauty truth”. Reality as perceived by an artist, if represented honestly, is truth. This truth cannot but be beautiful. It cannot but give aesthetic pleasure. That’s the purpose of art.

Just one more thing. Bachchan today gave voice to a sentiment I have always felt strongly about. “Oscar is not the ultimate recognition”, he said. Yes. I have always wondered why our film makers spend such huge amounts at screening and other Oscar winning extra theatre activities to get this recognition.To win an Oscar, I guess we will have to approximate the grammar of our movies to that of the western movies. Why on earth should we compromise so much to win an Oscar. I can mention any number of Oscar winning movies which I wouldn’t like to see a second time. Is there a greater recognition than a movie running house full in Indian for months?

Finally, the media behaviour with the crew of The Slum Dog Millionaire. One particular channel really took the cake with the anchor person repeatedly asking Danny Boyle about his feelings about India, about experience of movie making of India and, and, oh,she went on and on and on. The way she was trying hard for something good about India to fall from the lips of this rather reserved film maker, she reminded me of a starving cat waiting for a bottle of milk to fall so that she can lap up the spilt milk,. And the Indian members of the crew were drooling over him till his ears turned red.

We Indians! Ugh! How many eons must pass before we get over this colonial hangover?


  1. Big B's comments about Slumdog: Indifferent opinion - A man who is blind to the realities of the majority of Indians. I am not just referring to slum dwellers.

    Thoughtful opinion - Big B's heart is burning, as arch rival Anil Kapoor is involved. There's no denying it, but Big B would be praising over the moon, were his son or daughter-in-law were involved with the film. And he would probably have done a pooja at Tripathi for them to win the award.

    Colonial Hangover - I think entire world will need another century, if that...or at least, until 'Fair&Lovely' goes out of business:-)


  2. wow..Great post...I agree with all what you said..Will come back and read in peace again and then comment :)

    Good day

  3. I've been told that movie stars seldom compose their own blog. They have paid professionals to do it for them. Just as they have personal language trainers to help them with English fluency the moment they are in sight of stardom. Wonder how many of them have the time to even go through what the ghost writers put together before putting it out on the net.

    Interviewers can some times be downright idiotic. I remember an interview I watched on t.v quite some time back where an indian media man (I think his name was Karan Thapar)talked to the newly elected president of Afghanistan.
    "Now that democracy is in place, did you receive any monetary help from your neighbours India and Pakistan?"
    "Who helped you more? India or Pakistan?"
    "The help from Pakistan was considerably more and it came considerably quicker."
    "Did you bring this to the attention of the Indian govt.?"

    Then came the most sensible statement a head of nation probably could make in response to such an egoistic query. In a cool composed voice,he said,
    "What's the need? This is not some sort of competition."

    I strongly content your point that 'dog' is only an 'emphatic no-one' in Malayalam and that it is a 'commonly used idiom' which is hard to translate into English. Where did you pick up this knowledge of Malayalam? In the St. Teresa's High School? Were they that bad then? Or was it at Stella Maris?
    The statement was the most dastardly statement ever to have been made by a Chief Minister. First of all he was told right there at the airport that the dead man's father objected to him visiting the house. Why did he insist on going? Reaching the place, he was again told that he was an unwelcome guest. Why did he use Kodiyery to distract the owner of the house, take him away to the side yard under pretext of a conversation and then dash into the house himself to "console" the mother? And the man was in a rage when he knew that his resolve to not let him enter the house was sabotaged through crooked means. He screamed, "I don't want any dog coming to my house". Come on, KT, whom are you trying to kid? A dog is a dog. Whether in English or in Malayalam.
    When the media telecast the entire fiasco, his response was 'Would any dog have gone to that house if it was not Sanjeeve's house?'

    Sorry, C.M. Sanjeeve was dead. It was his father's house. He had every right to decide who should enter his house and who shouldn't. Just as every citizen of India has.

    Why do you go to a dead man's house in the first place? I thought people would do it to share the grief of the immediate family. And would you use the might of the govt. machinery and the rationale of your ruthless communist theories to force open the door of the dead man's house to share the grief of the family? Even when you are told much in advance and repeatedly, that the dead man's father hates the idea of letting you into the house?

    Very strange indeed.

  4. The huge and widening economic disparity in India is a reality. Instead of a discussion about the reason for that and finding a way to reduce it [of course not by increasing the number of reality shows] we are needlessly discussing the merits and demerits of showing to the World our dirty backyard.

    Our fascination for White skin and Western things is also a reality. That is one of the reasons for Oscar mania. Another reason is recognition at the Oscars will mean more money and fame.

  5. Charakan, who do you think will really be interested in reducing the disparity between the rich and the poor in India? The answer could well be no one. Not the rich, because they remain rich at the expense of the poor. Not the Congress, B,J,P B.S.P or S.P because they're being financed by the rich and they have to ensure things turn out to their advantage. (Besides, their top leaders are all billionaires and the second rung well on their way to billionaire-dom.) Not the communists because the party is relevant only so long as there is rampant poverty so they have the 'deprived' to talk about,(and pretend to fight for)as well as to get killed in insane political clashes and become 'martyrs', . Not the rest of us inhabiting blogosphere, happy with our armchairs and laptops,and low-cost broadband connections, content to ejaculate empty words into blogspace. Not the godmen and godwomen to whom the poor become relevant only while posing for a photograph,hugging one of them or caressing their children. (Their basic preoccupation being amassing money and power through every trick in the book, far removed from anything even remotely spiritual.)

    So as things stand, everyone of us is happy with the status quo of the poor remaining poor. (But we should all make politically appropriate noises from time to time as to how and why the divide between the 'haves' and the 'have- nots' should reduce - such statements would leave us feeling good, contented and morally elevated.)

    K.T, I'm surprised you've been tolerating my ramblings that tend to inevitably border on the martial. Thought you would bring the axe down on my last comment, but since you haven't done it, let me plunge the knife deeper and ask, if 'Not even a 'patti'(dog) if an 'emphatic no one' in Malayalam, would you have told your class "I'll be back in 5 minutes. Not even a 'patti' should talk in the meanwhile"? I don't think so. I wouldn't expect even an inspector of the infamous kerala police, while trying to ensure safe passage for the Prime Minister's convoy would tell a crowd of onlookers,"not even a 'patti' should step into the road" for 'emphasis' unless he deliberately wanted to invite trouble.


  6. "Slumdog Millionaire" naam se dukh
    Kya Oscar ke liye Desh,samaj,dharam, sanskriti aur apno ko gaali dena jaroori hei

    aaj ke dor main gareeb samaj alag-alag naam se jaana jata hai . kisliye sirf gareeb ka roj

    naya namkaran hota hai ? kabhi girijan, harijan, chamar, bhangi, dalit, upekchit,

    vanchit , achoot . kab tak ijjat utarawa kar amir ka manoranjan karta rahega yeh

    samaj ? aaj rajnitkon ki pehli pasand hai yeh , filmkaron ke liye hai yeh ek akarshak

    muddha. Kiyonki aise naam rakhne se koi inke khilaaf court jayega aur inko aram se

    popularity mill jayegi aisi gandi soch ko badawa hamara sensor board bhi de raha hai. Is

    film ko approval dene ka matlab hai ki is board ki atma mar chuki hai sochne samjhne ki

    bhi takat nahi bachi hai , aur is board mein koi bhi is samaj ki chinta karne wala nahi hai.

    is sab ke peeche kaaran hai sarkar ki laparvahi aur andekhi. Jiske liye siirf hum jimewar

    hein??????????Aisi dasha main ek bar fir bhagwan hi bhala kare jo kabhi nahi karta par

    umeed hai. Is prakar ke naam se amir samaj ka chota bacha apne mastishk mein ek

    dharna bana lega ki gareeb jhopady mein rehne walla k--- hota hei aur gareeb bechara is

    naye naamkarn ke liye ladta reh jayga jaise gareeb dalit sadiyon se ladta aa raha hei .is

    naam par turant rok lagni chaiye.

    Jai bhim, jai bharat, bharat mata ki jai.

    Shant Prakash(JATAV)
    279,Gyan Khand-1
    Indira Puram,
    Ghaziabad-201012,Uttar Pradesh
    Mobile-09871952799 ,
    Web -

  7. @paul m
    'A dog is a dog. Whether in English or in Malayalam'.
    oh hush! maneka gandhi might be around:-)

    listen Paul m. i was not trying to justfy the CM. I was only making a point about how even an idiomatic expression shud be used judiciously. one cannot take refuge behind the shield of an idiomatic expression when dealing with sensitive issues 'cos the violent reaction will blow the shield to smithreens as we saw in the case of the CM's remark. In the whole dog business, i blame the media. It was a slip of the tongue (unpardonable, i agree)on the part of the CM 'cos the question put to him had the word refering to the canine companion(was refering to the police dog), and as it sometimes happens to even the most discreet person sometimes(i am not claiming any such quality for the CM), it happened to the CM. and the media went to town crying foul - it behaved in the most objectionable manner, 'cos the people who were most hurt by the whole episode were the near and dear ones of sanjeev.remember, they pleaded with the media to lay to rest the whole issue.
    remeber the headless chicken episode, and the word 'crusade' used by Bush during Afghan war? I dont think bush meant a holy war - the word crusade has lost that specific connotation in the language when used in a nonhistorical context, and only means a committed fight. ut in the context of the afghan war, its historical assocoations were raked up.

    by the way, u seem to know my CV. r u the person i think u r? did we meet recently during a worshop on many modernities?

  8. I read your c.v on the net. I did not attend a workshop on 'many modernities'.I'm not sure we've met. May be there might have been some sort of a chance, passing acquaintance some 10 years or so before. (And then I stopped attending c.v. camps notwithstanding all threats, coaxing and cajoling).

    What do you think of the very act of the CM stubbornly bulldozing his way into the dead man's house?
    To me that signifies a gesture of violence by the state, by the prevailing degenerated political structure against the citizen, defenseless as he is. And I find it most crude that the CPM grassroots campaign mechanism swung into action to make it appear as if Sanjeeve's father had no right to refuse the 'pleasure' of the company of someone as 'mighty' and 'high' as the CM on such a poignant occasion.

    Whether Sanjeeve's family,permanently settled in Bangalore for the last 20 years or so, had to be considered a family towards which the govt. of kerala ought to have felt an obligation is a totally different question, independent of the controversy. I find it so petty minded that state govts. compensate the family of a commando who died fighting for his country, on the basis of the fact that he hailed from a particular state.
    It will be a good precedence if someone thought right and decided that any such compensation declared by a state govt. should be divided equally to the immediate family of all commandos who lost their lives in such an operation,disregarding which state of India they hailed from.

  9. The whole "Patti" episode involving VS Achuthanandan was a teenage manipulation - of a justifiable repeat [first uttered by Sri. Unnikrishnan] of an ordinary Malayalam word - by a stupid Channel girl that knew no Malayalam and presumably was not brought up in Kerala.

    The Kerala politicians that tried to cash in on it deserve our pity. I was amused to see VIPs linked to sex scandals expressing shock at the CM's 'blasphemy'.

    A mere primary school dropout, Achuthanandan responded to the media frenzy in a most mature way. This led to Unnikrishnan's apology.

    Unnikrishnan's ire was caused more by AK Anthony's neglect; but then, to Anthony, even Sam Manekshaw is not important enough!

  10. Brilliant write up...
    I dont know whether AB would have responded the same way if he was involved.It somehow seems less genuine.
    Yes..India is not just one experience..its a collective experience...something so rich and varied which cannot be bottled in just one package.If AB wants to sell one type of bottle,DB can do it in another..As long as there is positive art in it...I aint complaining

  11. "Unnikrishnan's ire was caused more by AK Anthony's neglect;"
    "Achuthanandan responded to the media frenzy in a most mature way"
    "a justifiable repeat [first uttered by Sri. Unnikrishnan] of an ordinary Malayalam word -"

    Nuggets, stoic, nuggets! But you're not alone. There are many communist fellow travelers who toe this line.

    I'm sure you have an equally valid justification for Achuthanandan insisting on sharing the family's grief by forcing his entry into the house even when sane men advised him, much in advance, to the contrary.

  12. Well, what i said is what actually happened.

    Achuthanandan is 85 years old and is practically a Karanavar. His being asked to go away was the utmost in incivility. Unnikrishnan's was despicable hospitality. It was admitted in the apology later.

    Consider whether Unnikrishnan would have dared to act the way he did, had he been a resident of Kannur. His ill-temper was caused by AK Anthony's neglect; only that poor Achuthanandan had to bear it. They accepted the Rs 15 lakhs happily.

    It was the stupid Channel playing. The people took it up to prove that they are no less stupid. Remember that the question which the dimwit girl asked was not being aired; only the answer was.

    Tell me how Sandeep's death is equal or superior to the sacrifices of hundreds of other Keralites that have died at our frontiers in the past. Media can make mountains out of molehills.

    Remember how the great 'martyrdom' of a Kochi student in the 60s in the cause of the KSU has now been revealed as a colossal lie by the Manorama.

    I say that our media were our first Manchiams and Total4Us.

  13. @ the stoic
    can't access your blog. you havent given YOUR blogger name

  14. "Consider whether Unnikrishnan would have dared to act the way he did, had he been a resident of Kannur."

    Precisely the point I was trying to make, stoic. Just because you are the leader of a militant political group which gloats on its readyness to use musclepower against the lidividual citizen, you can not bulldoz your way into someone's home when you are claearly told, much in advance, that you will make a very unwelcome guest in his house. And the person who communicated this to Achuthanandan was the CM of Karnataka himself.

    And Achuthanandan's comment that APJ Abdul Kalam is only a person who sends 'vaanam' into the sky,takes away from him any claim whatsoever to 'kaaranavarship'.

    I wonder threats of what nature where issued for Sandeep's father to render an apology and accept the money.

    You, among many others, seem to believe that a citizen of free india does not have the right to deny access to the leader of the CPM entry into his house, because "it will be an uncivil act". What about the act of insisting that you should enter the house come hell or high water, to have the media telecast your mug as that of the most compassionate CM? A very civi act indeed!
    And talking about Kannur being a marxist stronghold, please believe me, there are pockets in U.P, Bihar and elsewhere in the country where someone who goes in to preach marxism, may not come out alive. It reflects the tragic state of affairs in our country at the end of 60 years of democracy, and I wouldn't be one to look at it as reason to celebrate an ideology, whether its leftist, rightist or left off centre.

  15. Correct me if I am wrong.

    "Born to a poor boat-owner's family in Ramnathapuram, Kalam sold newspapers to pay his fees and pawned his sister's jewellery to complete a diploma in engineering."

    After BSc, he got a Diploma in Engineering from MIT, Madras, which in those days was like one of our private ITIs [not IIT], and was begun in 1949 by a businessman called C Rajam. It was a two-year course. The Diploma was pompously called DMIT (Diploma in MIT). Kalam took it in 1957. It was not at the time a recognised qualification [more or less like our old Chengannur Diplomas].

    However, Kalam is now described as a great scientist and engineer of repute, and even a genuine Ph.D. He was actually only a bureaucrat or manager.

    'Vaanam Vidalukaaran' is the Malayalam translation of 'Missile Man', the title by which Kalam is known. However, Achuthanandan used it in jocular way, to amuse his labourer-audience, like any street speaker.

    Another example of how the media can make 'great scientists' of even ITI Certificate holders...??? This is the same way that Achuthanandan of the 'Vettiniratthal' is now 'Kerala samoohatthinte manassaakshi'!

  16. @Stoic.
    I agree with the very last statement in your comment. The media shouldn't portray Achuthanandan of 'vettinirathal' fame now as the conscientious voice of our society. However, should we forget that he had, after all, talked about bringing to book the rapists of Shari
    who died in a hospital during treatment and whose post mortem report mentions that there was lethal levels of lead detected in her blood? True he was cribbed, cabinned and confined to such an extent by Pinarayi's henchmen that he couldn't make good his promise.

    Should we forget that there are strong indicators that sons of two ministers in his cabinet were actively involved in the criminal acts and the 'VIP' visitor who threatened Shari with dire consequences,just a few days before her death, was the mother of one of them?

    Should we forget, that the tabloid 'Metro City' that published two write ups recently against Achuthanandan's daughter for her Principal Investigator (not even she, directly) having been awarded a Rs. 35 lakh research grant, is owned by Faris Aboobakkar?

    It is only a matter of who is the lesser evil. When compared to the multi-crore scandals masterminded by adversaries in his own party,and when compared to the antiques of Binish Kodiyeri and other such minister-offsprings, Achuthanandan comes to assume the halo of a communist who is at least true to his own ideology.

    I disagree with your assessment of Abdul Kalam. And I do not particularly worry where he got his degrees. I have seen illiterate men living in utter poverty upholding higher values of life, dignity and integrity than the winner of a Nobel prize. I choose to respect the former and not the latter.

    I also believe that Kalam was one of the best scientists in the country during his tenure with the DRDO and ISRO, and the best thing that happened to Indian democracy in the recent past, was his ascension to presidency.

    Stoic, you have politely said,'correct me if I'm wrong'. I can't. You're incorrigible. *LOL*
    Besides, I strongly believe that no one is convinced in an argument.
    We'll all go on passionately clinging to our pet prejudices,no matter how convincing or logical someone else's perspective could be.

  17. @stoic and others.... Writing smart and intellectual doesn’t necessarily mean that you are right. First if you have some time please visit Kashmir or loc and see how life is for our soldiers. Giving up life, family and morals for sake of belief, religion…etc is easy. Trying to protect your family,community,society is very difficult . Achuthanandan is a dog in my opinion, I don’t care how maj sandeep’ parents are but sandeep is a hero and sending sniffer dogs to his house is an insult {esp} to a person who has lay down his life to protect the working class of the country. There is a famous saying about keralites “when in kerala they are the most laziest and ppl but the day they move out of their state they are the most prosperous and capable of running business on mars”this is because kerala is a communist state and Achuthanandan is a prime reason for a martyr and a political dog ,I think it was simple decision for ppl and the media to attack Achuthanandan. STOIC your comments about kalam appalls me next you will be talking about Gandhi !!

  18. Well, Annonymous. Much might be said on both sides about Gandhiji also...

    Did you ever consider why Gandhiji became ineffectual towards the end, even to the extent of being ignored by an avaricious Nehru and Co?

    This was because whisper-campaign in India and motivated media in the West had by then, succeeded in totally vulgarising Gandhiji's Brahmacharya experiments to render him dis-credited. Gandhiji's holiness and greatness having been thus affected, the politicians on all sides were emboldened to 'ignore' him about the transfer of power.

    As for Kalam, I only pointed out that he is not a qualified scientist or real Ph.D; but only an ITI Certificate holder after a B.Sc in Physics. You may Email him and ask if I am wrong.

    He was a good Manager of the technical facilities that he headed. He is also a very good showman. I did not and would not try to run down his impact on the Presidency. An ordinary guy like me is in no way qualified to criticize his importance.

    About Sandeep Unnikrishnan, I only raised a doubt as to how his death could be greater than that of hundreds of other Keralites that have perished on our borders.

    I always only suggest a viewpoint; the Truth is beyond all of us.


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