BANGALORE — "Slumdog Millionaire", a phantasmagoric movie tracing the odds-defying rise of a slum-dwelling underdog, won eight Oscars, including Best Film and Best Director for British filmmaker Danny Boyle, and caused the London Times to brag, “British triumph”.
But for India’s movie-crazy millions Slumdog's showing at the Oscars represented Bollywood’s big night out.
Oscar night had all the ingredients of a Bollywood film’s climactic crescendo: Gold-and-glitter clad dancers shimmering on the Oscar stage to Slumdog’s typically Bollywood songs; double Oscar-winner A.R. Rahman’s winning speech which borrowed immortal dialogue from Bollywood movie Deewar , “Mere paas maa hai” (I have my mother with me); to the images of Bollywood star Anil Kapoor holding the Oscar statuette aloft in undisguised triumph; to the cast of the film including the child actors from Mumbai’s slums making their way to the stage.
“This is just the beginning for Bollywood, India has so many stories to tell,” Indian director Subhash Ghai told GlobalPost.
“Slumdog's Oscar triumph will inspire many Indian actors, directors and technicians to embark on making films with an international sensibility and a global narrative,” said Ghai, maker of such hit Bollywood blockbuster films as "Taal", "Karz" and "Khalnayak".
Bollywood films, including Ghai’s, are anything-is-possible tales that contain the mandatory six songs, comedy, action and melodrama and, at times, the divide between the rich and the poor or the separation of two lovers, all packaged into a happy ending.
Some of these very elements make Slumdog a close Bollywood cousin.
Many Bollywood fans might well be straight out of Slumdog, too. While subsisting on less than $2 a day, they would not think twice about foregoing a meal or two for a chance to stand in line to catch the “first day, first show” of their favorite star’s movie. The three hours of Bollywood diversion could be their only chance of escaping the hard reality of a Mumbai slum.
Most Bollywood films are fantastical studies in escapism that have enthralled millions of Indian movie goers spanning the country’s vast geography.
“They are an Indian thali,” said Ghai, likening Bollywood films to plated Indian meals where appetizers, breads, rice, vegetables, yogurt, pickles and dessert are served all at one go.
Bollywood movies are made in Hindi and originate in Bombay, now Mumbai, the setting of "Slumdog Millionaire". But Bollywood’s following overrides India’s diversity — languages, religions, cultures, its stratification and size — and, in fact, unifies India.
For India’s 1.1 billion people, Bollywood stars such as Amitabh Bachchan (in the movie, protagonist Jamal Malik dives into a feces-filled latrine to get the star's autograph), Aishwarya Rai and Salman Khan, both stars in recent Ghai movies, are demi-gods. Some like Bachchan are actually worshipped in shrines built by crazed fans.
The Bollywood euphoria over the Slumdog victory on Oscar night was evident amongst stars, too. Mahesh Manjrekar, actor and director who plays the gangster in "Slumdog Millionaire" told an Indian television channel that Slumdog is a “Bollywood film in English” and Danny Boyle is an Indian disguised as a Britisher.
After catching snatches of the Oscar ceremony on television in Mumbai, Ghai, too, was quick to establish part ownership for the movie’s success. Slumdog was a smart movie balance — “first half Hollywood, second half Bollywood” — that exuded Bollywood innocence by showing human triumph amid great squalor and crime, said Ghai.
In fact, the Oscar-winning song “Jai Ho” was composed by A.R. Rahman for Ghai’s recent film “Yuvraaj”. Ghai said he had left it out as he had "better" Rahman songs to choose from and the song eventually found its way into the Boyle film.
Slumdog’s performance at the Oscar’s is a big high for Bollywood, said Bollywood analyst Taran Adarsh. “It vindicates the idea that we can make masala (spiced up) Bollywood films work at the Oscar level.”
In Bangalore, avid movie fan Uma Iyer said Slumdog’s conquests at the Oscar’s were “uplifting” for her as an Indian.
“It may not be logical but I was stirred by the same emotion as when an Indian won the country’s first Olympic gold,” Iyer said.
Iyer was touching upon a sore point for many Indians. Despite being the world’s second most-populous country, no Indian had won an individual Olympic gold medal until Abhinav Bindra bagged a gold medal in the rifle shooting event in the last Olympics.
Similarly, while Bollywood and India’s other movie centers such as Sandalwood in Bangalore and Kollywood in Chennai churn out hundreds of movies each year, none has made any headway at Oscars so far.
But that has not stopped the success of Bollywood amassing a fan following in the West, coinciding with India’s recent economic rise and a growing Western fascination for all things Indian. Recently, Bollywood hits such as "Om Shanti Om" and "Ghajini" have shown up for consecutive weeks in the U.S. box office charts.
But Oscar or not, proof that India has wholeheartedly embraced "Slumdog Millionaire" is evident from the full-blown controversy it has generated.
A lawsuit has alleged that the movie’s name was defamatory, street protestors have demonstrated against the depiction of poverty and a religious group called for a film ban saying it offended their god.
Some detected envy in the criticism. Slumdog could have been made by any Bollywood filmmaker, said Bollywood movie critic Rajeev Masand. “The story, the slums, the mileu, the artists are all here,” said Masand, “It’s not easy accepting that we have been left behind at our own game.”
Post-Oscars, however, even those Indians carping about the film’s depiction of crime and squalor were swept away by the victorious mood.
“The reality of the slums is harsh,” said Iyer, the movie buff, “I couldn’t have stomached it but for "Slumdog"’s sugar coating”.
More on GlobalPost dispatches on "Slumdog Millionaire":
Video: Slum Tours, Inc.
The real slumdogs
From Bollywood to Hollywood: A.R. Rahman