Thursday, January 22, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire: The Next Mother India?

It's been over 2 years since I last wrote about Indian cinema. But today's Oscar nominations cause me to take a gander at Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle's incredible sleeper of the 2009 season. It started by running in arthouses in November, and now with its Golden Globe win and 10 Oscar nominations, this movie is getting the kind of distribution very few arthouse films receive.

Based on Vikas Swarup's novel Q & A, Slumdog Millioniare opened finally this week in Mumbai. The movie has generated some controversy inside India. On his blog site, the great Indian Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan initially attacked the movie: "[It] projects India as Third World dirty under belly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots." Bachchan actually "appears" in the film in a most novel way, and it might be a touch of pique that prompted this soon-retracted comment.

With all these Oscar nominations, it might be good to look back upon Indian cinema's history with the Oscars. The great 1957 classic, Mother India, directed by Mehboob Khan, was the first Indian film nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. One of the first great color epics, Mother India was the story of an ancient/young nation sacrificing for some better future, told through the bitter life of a mother and her two sons. It is often compared to Gone With the Wind for its historical reach and its tragic scope.

It was not until 2002 when India again received a nomination, and this time it was Ashutosh Gorwiker's Lagaan. Lagaan is remembered for its breakthrough technology (live miking of actors as they performed scenes) and its incredible musical score by A. R. Rahman, the greatest composer of contemporary Bollywood.

Despite the foreign funding, the lead director and screenwriter both Brits -- Slumdog Millionaire is a fantastic Indian film. Foreign funding might be a problem for nationalists, but is a welcome development for the new globe-reaching Bollywood.

Slumdog Millionaire continues the narrative of Mother India, propelling the modern Indian story into the next generation -- the urban generation of cable television and cell phones, of IT call centers and abject slums existing side-by-side. And in the best spirit of Mumbai's tolerant and slightly subversive Indian film community, the movie refreshingly does not tell the story of Hindustani suffering, but instead tells the story of Muslims in a country of continuing Hindu-exclusive nationalism. The story of Muslims in modern India has occasionally been addressed, but in Slumdog Millionaire it is portrayed in all its vicious intensity.

With a knee-tapping soundtrack by A. R. Rahman, and a story of love and romance, Slumdog Millionaire is one of the most compelling must-sees of this Oscar season.

And Bollywood fans -- stay for the credits!

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