The missionary position

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WE ALL love sentimental trash, especially if it can masquerade as something artistic and meaningful. Often it needn’t even do that — in an act of self-affirmation we invest it with these virtues. Slumdog Millionaire is one more representation of India as the white man sees it, not as we do. It’s a five-hundred-yearold tradition. Look carefully, the triumphant picture in the papers could be the enlightened missionary with the tribal boys. The tradition is strong: we’ve always been cosy with the representations. It’s worthwhile to remember we did not tell an Indian story and force the world to recognise it. They told us an Indian story and forced us to applaud it.

A bit like Thomas Babington Macaulay, who declared from behind the musketry of the colonial conqueror that a “single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia”. Looking up a long barrel with gunpowder at its end, we quietly acquiesced. Quietly turned our backs on hundreds of classical and medieval texts, including the great epics, the Vedas, the Puranas, the Upanishads, the medical, ethical, linguistic, erotic and political treatises of dozens of pathbreaking thinkers, the plays of Kalidasa, the deeply humanist and philosophic poetry of the sufi and bhakti singers, and the luminous memoirs of emperors and commoners. And having acquiesced in our classification by another — ill-informed at that — proceeded to spend the next nearly two hundred years hunting for approval.

The argument does not proceed from narrowness, from a bristling us and them. Artistic domain, and license, is boundless — even if the art is only commerce. Everyone has the right to tell anyone’s story, in whichever way they choose. But if the story is specious and yet is taken for a master tale, it’s reason to wonder at the state of cultural discourse.

From a distance, through the refractions of many media lenses, I like Danny Boyle. He exudes great energy and humility. Qualities that make astonishing things possible, qualities that are on display in his rollercoaster film set in Mumbai, his Concorde ride to showbiz stardom. Yet, from a distance, through the rapturous din of critics and viewers, I wonder at the film. Setting aside AR Rahman’s ever-enchanting music and the visceral brilliance of the little kids, I try and understand why a reasonably entertaining, mildly inconsistent, mildly incoherent, mildly sloppy in its casting, mildly sloppy on its facts film, with a banal narrative trajectory, and dodgy politics at its heart, becomes such a phenomenon.

One feels awe not for the film, but for its miraculous journey. Clearly, in an increasingly low-brow ocean of publicity and hype, the idea of true excellence is a drowned raft.

Not shorn of the hype, but because of it, to an Indian, the film ought to disappoint. It tells me nothing that I don’t already know; and it tells me things I know to be not true. Unlike Amitabh Bachchan I have no problems with the film focusing on India’s abject poverty. That focus is salutary, and crying out for further exploration. My problem is the opposite— that it trivialises it. Uses its excreta and chopped limbs to tell a dubious story that leaves the viewer not disturbed but cheerfully smug. You leave the seat exhilarated, not in pain.

The film tells a very big lie: that India’s poor have a happy shot at leaping out of their misery into affluence and joy. One day you can be in the crap heap — diving into excreta — and the next running down a slum girl who may have failed to make school but seems to have managed to walk through Vogue’s offices on her way to teenage. With a stunning lack of plausibility you see the slum child Jamaal grow into a refined public schoolboy who must surely be eating cucumber sandwiches for lunch. India’s wannabe wealthy — billionaires among them — would slice their fingers to boast such a sophisticated son. For that accent alone, they would throw in their toes too.

As many cooing admirers have remarked, the director is on a lickety-split run, pacing his film like a Kobe Bryant fast-break in an NBA finals. Throw, catch, feint, weave, leap, dunk; turn and start running again. Aw! Gee! The camera is shaking, the story is sprinting — there is no way anyone can tell if a few chapters have fallen out, several links of logic lost. You have to be grateful Jamal only grows up to be Dev Patel. Given the absence of any need to explain the miraculous transformation, he could well have become Brad Pitt or Prince Charles. To further celebrate the carnival of implausibility, Master Dev acts with the cool flatness of the cucumber sandwich (that he surely must be eating) — no neuroses of the slums tarnishing his soul.

For those celebrating the authenticity of the film, here’s a secret: the makers clearly had no interest in verisimilitude. It’s been the rough approach of artists working the India material for the last hundred years. It arises from a clear understanding of “audience”. The awgee mobs filling theatres around the world, and paying in dollars or some such muscular currency, cannot tell the difference between Hindi and Hindu or the vast distance between Mumbai and Agra. Much like the American tourists at the Taj Mahal, who cannot distinguish between an unlettered, ignorant urchin and a licensed guide.

The awgee mobs — which include vast swathes of awgee India — will not be held back by the remarkable metamorphosis of Hindi-speaking slum children into English-speaking teenagers — smoothly accomplished whilst riding the roofs of trains, without the intervention of any forms of schooling. Nor will they wonder by what divine principle some of the desperately destitute speak Hindi and others English. In the happy world of air-conditioning and popcorn — and fountain Pepsi — the poor can be made to do whatever we wish. Dance, sing, love, win quiz contests, murder with a Webley & Scott, die in a tub full of currency notes. What is the meaning of being rich if you cannot make the poor do whatever you wish? What is the meaning of being Hollywood if you cannot make of India whatever you wish?

Aptly then, the awgee army will not be detained by the representation of the police either. It knows Mumbai’s police have vanquished murder, rape, riot, theft and arson. All its working on now is nabbing crooked quiz contestants and torturing them through the night with electrical shocks to evoke the correct answer. If the art direction is right — squalid files and furniture — and the cop fat enough, there is no reason for further doubt. It also knows behind the fatness and toughness the police hides the soul of Mother Teresa. Once the boy who eats cool cucumber sandwiches begins to talk, its heart will melt, and the empathy flow like faeces in the slums.

THE AWGEE sociologists also know that the grand hosts of India’s grandest shows all come from the slums. Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan — the only two who’ve ever hosted the Hindi version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? And, of course, now Anil Kapoor in this fast-break film — who chooses to host it in English, because the slum boy has lost his Hindi as he grew up (just as Kapoor himself did — the upward mobility from the slums is a veritable avalanche!). Awgee and awgee also know that these grand hosts play sinister games, like planting wrong answers and summarily handing over contestants to the fat and tough police (for electrocution and empathy).

The awgee media tells us the film is about hope. And hope, as we all know, is greater than inconsistency, inaccuracy, implausibility, dodgy politics, and partypooper critics. And since the film is about the triumph of impossible hope, it is impossibly greater than all of the above. QED. And yes, of course it is also a fantasy, a fairytale. And since, for these poor sods, hope too is a fantasy, it all coheres, hangs together beautifully.

The awgee readers of awgee media know that this is the crucial difference between people like Satyajit Ray, Mira Nair and the Slumdog millionaires. Their films were about poverty and streetchildren; this one’s about fantastic hope. In their heart of hearts, the awgee readers know the poor are desperately in need of hope. They also know that hope is all they can — and will — give them. And let’s be honest — false or true, fantastic hope is still hope. The awgee media knows something even more fundamental. Never criticise the celebrity whose interview keeps your shop alive. The road to poverty is paved with robust criticism.

The world of entertainment is studded with shining pyramids of implausibility. Each one’s true reward is a singing cash register. But great awards, fools argue, must go to the fragile hutments of truth and excellence. The wise, on the other hand, know the awgees at the Oscars better. They know they have a rare gift (as in the film) for turning ordinary shit into tasty chocolate and peanut butter.

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Editor

In a 28-year career as a journalist, Tarun has been an editor with the India Today and The Indian Express groups, and the Managing Editor of Outlook. He is the founder of Tehelka—which has garnered international fame for its aggressive public interest journalism. In 2001, Asia Week listed Tarun as one of Asia’s 50 most powerful communicators, and Business Week declared him among 50 leaders at the forefront of change in Asia. Tarun’s debut novel, The Alchemy of Desire, was hailed by The Sunday Times as ‘an impressive and memorable debut’, and by Le Figaro as a ‘masterpiece’. In 2007, The Guardian, UK, named him among the 20 who constitute India’s new elite.

Tarun’s second novel, The Story of My Assassins was published in 2009 to rave reviews. Pankaj Mishra has said, ‘It sets new and dauntingly high standards for Indian writing in English’, while Altaf Tyrewala has called it ‘an instant classic’. The book’s website is www.taruntejpal.com.