"Slumdog Millionaire" Offers Realistic – but Narrow – Slice of India

Editor's note: Dr. Kevin Sauter, professor of communications and journalism, submitted a guest column to The Scroll.

MUMBAI, India – It added a different level of interest and intensity to be sitting in the middle row of a theater filled with Indians, in the middle of the city of Mumbai, on the second day after the movie “Slumdog Millionaire” opened in India.

I am on sabbatical this year and traveling around the world with my wife to conduct research on Catholic liturgies, and the project brought us to India for December and January. We had looked forward to this film for several weeks, our interest piqued by an email from my brother Patrick telling us we should see this new movie set in India.

We had not heard anything about it, but then we got another email from friends saying that they had seen it, and then another. Soon we saw articles in the Times of India about the movie, the actors and especially the composer, whose score was reaping praise. The awards began to come and interest in the movie in India heightened.

There has been a significant and palpable sense of anxiety in Mumbai since the terrorist attacks of last Nov. 26, and they have galvanized the people in this country as much as 9/11 did in the United States. Love of country, outrage over the attacks, criticism of those who might have stopped them and veneration for the “martyrs” who gave their lives in defending the city were all topics of everyday conversation and media coverage. The appearance of a movie about India that was gaining momentum as the highlight of the entertainment year was a welcome distraction from the grim business of recovering from the attacks and working to bring the attackers to justice.

So we sat in the PVR Cinema in the Oberoi Mall, a glass and chrome building that is the duplicate of any American suburban shopping center, and took in the striking imagery and original narrative that was “Slumdog Millionaire.” We cringed along with everyone at disturbing scenes of life in India from the perspective of three poor children struggling to make it on their own. The final triumph, unusual and celebratory, brought a satisfying end to one of the best movies, perhaps the singular best movie, of the year, as measured by its eight Oscars.

In the days after this opening, there were gushing reviews and interesting discussion in the papers and among friends, most noting the excellence of the film, the depth of the acting and the authenticity of the setting. But that, too, is where the criticism began to build. Concern was raised over how Mumbai in particular and India in general were portrayed to the world. Director Danny Boyle had cast Indian actors, had commissioned an Indian composer and had shot the film on location in Mumbai and Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. As we drove home from the mall in an auto-rickshaw, the most common form of transport in the suburbs, we reflected on the authenticity of the film. We didn’t know the slums, and life there was beyond our comprehension. But the streets of Mumbai, the train station, the Taj and the exteriors of the slums were things we had seen and lived with during our two months in the city. The scene at the construction site was taken not blocks from our rented flat. This was indeed Mumbai, and the movie represented accurately the feel of life here and the visual chaos that is this city of 19 million souls.

But our concern about perceptions also rose as we realized that we were indeed watching this movie in Mumbai, and that we could then walk out of the theater and have a snack at McDonald’s, shop for jewelry in a plush store filled with precious gems or stroll down the street and enjoy the warm air and moonlight of our little corner of the city, Hiranandani Gardens. We could talk Suhda and Ramen, two friends who run a successful textile export business, about their daughters, one studying in London and the other preparing for her important exams. Gagan and his wife, Prerna, other new Indian friends expecting their first child in May, chatted with my wife about the anxieties and excitement of impending parenthood as we enjoyed dinner at a local restaurant, each of the women in our group wearing the new saris they had purchased.

Life is textured in Mumbai and India, and if you are here you know that to be the case, but if you sit through “Slugdog Millionaire” without reference or experience, your mediated vision of the country can become fixed. There are many movies that show the seedier side of a country or city, in America or Japan or Ireland, but our experience in engaging those texts has so much more “context” that the enduring images of the movie have offsetting cognitions with which to weigh our perceptions of the place or the people. In the 1970s, the movie “Midnight Express,” about a young American caught trying to smuggle drugs out of Turkey, became the dominant image of that country for a generation of young people who thought, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Who would visit Turkey after watching the violence and brutality of a warped and medieval prison system?

I worry about those whose viewing of “Slumdog Millionaire” becomes one of their strongest experiences with India, and I hope they recognize the realistic – but very narrow – slice of this huge country they have witnessed. It is a great film, to be sure, but as we tell our children after they are in bed with the covers pulled up after watching a scary story, “Remember, it’s only a movie.”