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Soot and stain do not make India

 | October 19, 2012

Do Indian directors seriously believe that it is only the country’s grime and filth that has the power to appeal to an international audience?

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When Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire won the Oscar some years ago, the film’s lead actors, Dev Patel and Frieda Pinto, were delirious with joy. As was the director, Danny Boyle.

But the American honour, which has increasingly become the yardstick to measure global cinematic excellence, dismayed many in India. And some outside as well, who saw Slumdog Millionaire as a celebration of India’s poverty.

Which indeed it was.

Unfortunately, it is this kind of bleak and depressing fare from India that gets picked by movie festivals the world over. The Abu Dhabi Film Festival, whose sixth edition is now on, screened two India movies which were not exactly bright and cheery.

Manjeet Singh’s debut feature, Mumbai Cha Raja, has teenage Rahul as its hero. His drunken father and long suffering step-mother could hardly be expected to make a happy home for the boy. He drops out of school, befriends a younger boy who sells balloons, and together they set out to a lead a life of pranks, deriving from these what can be seen as harmless fun.

Often battered by his father, though loved and cared by his stepmother, Rahul roams the streets of Mumbai’s slums, where money is the mantra and crime a way of life. Rahul and balloon-seller Arbaz help Singh explore this grimy underbelly during one rain-soaked Ganesh festival.

Though Singh does infuse into his movie moments of joy, Mumbai Cha Raja is overwhelmingly bleak.

Kamal’s ID is yet another work which peeps into an India that appears joyless. His protagonist, a young woman, does not live in a slum like Rahul, but is drawn into one in Mumbai when a man who comes to her upper middleclass home one afternoon to paint one of her walls collapses and later dies.

Seedier side of India

The rest of the film’s narrative talks about how the hapless woman finds herself trapped in some of the trickiest situations. Having forced by circumstances to take responsibility for the man, she sets on a frustrating journey into the city’s slums, hoping to find some clue about his identity. Which eludes her till the end.

If the movie often borders on the unbelievable, Kamal seems besotted by the slums, whose ugliness is captured in its most distasteful form. Almost microscopically. The camera wanders into some of the dirtiest lanes and bylanes of Mumbai’s slums, pausing and pondering over mountains of garbage, and stopping by gut-wrenching gutters.

And our heroine marches merrily along these paths peppered with slush and slime, an iPhone in hand and grit on her face.

I think it has become increasingly fashionable for young Indian helmers to create a cinema that captures the seedier side of the country. And, lately, the inspiration has been Boyle and his slumming.

Do Indian directors seriously believe that it is only the country’s grime and filth that has the power to appeal to an international audience? Do they think that movies like Slumdog Millionaire – and now Mumbai Cha Raja and ID – alone can get noticed in the world arena? And, well, fetch prizes?

I wonder. I really wonder.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted at[email protected]. He is an FMT columnist.


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