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Here in India, the Best Picture award for "Slumdog Millionaire" was almost an afterthought to the really big wins: A.R. Rahman's double for best original score and best original song. For a movie that has for some had dubious status as Indian-but-not-really-Indian, Rahman's music was the unifying force between Hollywood and Bollywood. And for Indians, Rahman's Oscar was the recognition that “real” Indian films have so long been denied.
A quick internet search reveals that tomorrow's newspaper readers will be treated to banner headlines like “Double Oscar joy for music maestro Rahman.” And all of India's major TV news stations are already feting the “Mozart from Madras” with glory shots of his home in Chennai, where crowds woke up before 6 a.m. here to gather, sackfuls of firecrackers in tow, in anticipation of the announcement.
The faux controversy over the film's alleged exploitation of poverty and the question of the western mind's obsessions about India have disappeared, it seems, in all the excitement. As Rahman said in his (excellent, and excellently humble) acceptance speech, all his life he has had the choice between love and hate, and he chose love.
India's reaction proves that most everybody here is prepared to do the same.
But as TV newscasters talk about their desire to leap from their seats and dance with joy, I can't help wondering why an award from America matters so much. Yes, as it did for Sally Field, the Oscar proves that people around the world really do like India, and Indian culture, or at least what little they understand about it — the best things: its enduring perseverance, its irrepressible optimism in the midst of fatalism, and the wonderful spectacle that is found everywhere and in everything. But why is it so important to be liked — particularly by people who know so little, and understand less, about you?
Since I have lived in India, I have joined in the speculation about India's nominees for the best foreign language film category, all of them disastrous, at least from the point of view of choosing a likely winner. And I have had untold drunken arguments about Bollywood's triumphs and terrors. What has always struck me in these discussions, though, is their absurdity. At every other time, Indians fully recognize that the movies they call “our films” represent a genre unto themselves, every bit as different from typical Hollywood fare as Kabuki or Chinese opera. But when it comes to Oscar season, they suddenly want foreigners, who understand neither the language, nor the context nor (most importantly) the conventions, to fall in love with a type of performance that they've never seen before and judge it favorably based on completely different parameters from those it defines for itself.
Perhaps because of this desire for recognition, over the past decade or so, Indian films have been drifting further and further from the conventions that define Bollywood. Many of the films that have resulted — Johnny Gaddar for instance, or (though I haven't seen it) the currently running Dev D. — are admirable efforts to blend the Hollywood and Bollywood aesthetics. But the “multiplex movie” as it is sometimes called has been disastrous for the classic Bollywood art form, if one dares to call it that. There have been a hundred failed attempts at an “Indian” "Slumdog Millionaire" already. And there will be a thousand more now. But almost nobody seems to know how to make another Amar, Akbar, Anthony or Deewaar.
To me, that's the real problem with Indian cinema — not that a bunch of actors overseas have never heard of Shah Rukh Khan.
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