From rags to Rajah

– Slumdog Millionaire


Last night I braved my aversion to 1-Utama to watch Slumdog Millionaire, the movie that, for those who don’t already know, has been sweeping the top awards at the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA Awards, and is currently up for a Best Picture Academy Award. I first heard about it a couple of months ago when my mother’s friend Janetty (really Jeanette) said that it was all the rage in India and was even making its mark in the U.S. And after watching it last night, I could see why.

What I love about this movie is that it shows the world what Bollywood, and certainly most politicians, are so careful to conceal: that beneath the glamorous veneer, and the extravagant and ostentatious displays of wealth, there are millions of people who live hand-to-mouth in crushing, unimaginable poverty on the outskirts of the major urban areas of India, who have come to think nothing of washing themselves and their clothes in polluted water, and scrounging for food in garbage dumps. Even sadder is the cruel business the crime lords run of herding orphaned, abandoned children and training them to beg, blinding and crippling them to increase their income if necessary. If people haven’t already learnt to realize that there is more to life than money, the heartbreaking reality of this movie would have done it for them.

On the flipside, the movie also shows the kind of hope these people have: hope that one day, they will find a way out of their meager lives and build new ones. Whether or not they really resort to fighting for a chance to participate in Kaun Banega Crorepati, the fact that a simple, but deceptively wizened young chai-wala from the slums of Dharavi can get as far as winning two crores (twenty million) gives the people hope, that even if they win only one hazaar (thousand) or one lakh (hundred thousand), they at least took that step.

Props to the directors and producers for not casting any of the big Bollywood stars, who were deemed ‘too refined’ and ‘too good-looking’, in the lead roles, as that would have gone against the whole show-the-real-India angle. And even though Dev Patel did a good job portraying the deadpan Jamal Malik, I think the biggest credit should go to the child actors who played the younger versions of the lead characters. They were what made the harshness of life in the slums more real and more present than ever.

Hope. It eludes us all, choosing not to show itself until we least expect it. And contrary to what some might think, it should not be any other way.

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