Some years ago, during frequent trips to India, I became a regular watcher of Kaun Banega Crorepati?. The fact that megastar Amitabh Bachchan hosted the show, together with it being one of the few TV programmes my father enjoyed watching, made it a pleasant ritual, the pleasure far exceeding the mechanics of the show itself—the original Who Wants to be a Millionaire? paradoxically seemed to be a pale imitation.
The borrowing and adaptation was an example of a long-standing one-way cultural transfer that characterized much of what constituted global interaction. We drank Coca-Cola and wore Levi’s, or their imitators if the originals were unattainable, unavailable or unaffordable. We read Enid Blyton and watched Hindi movies where melodies and rhythms were sometimes lifted from rock and roll, Latin music via North America, and even the “Banana Boat Song” (in Dil Apna aur Preet Paraye from 1960).
There was a brief period in the 1960s when the Beatles’ flirtation with Indian music and meditation encouraged a reverse flow, but disillusion soon set in, both with the promise of India and with the counter-culture that had pursued it. Musical collaborations and isolated cultural borrowings from South Asia continued, but mostly on the margins and interstices of the mainstream, as the subcontinent (and the West) struggled through conflict and stagnation.
We are all familiar with India’s story of economic resurrection from the 1980s on, and the role that globalization has played in it. Software, call centres, diamonds, steel—there are multiple dimensions of India’s new economic engagement with the world. Literature, movies and music have also become examples of the country’s new confidence and global influence. Writers from India, or of Indian heritage, regularly receive kudos in the West. Indian movie directors make serious and successful movies for Western audiences, and even the occasional Hollywood spectacular.
Even with all these examples of India’s rising global influence, Slumdog Millionaire is different. The original book Q&A, by Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, received somewhat mixed reviews, but was a readable, commercially successful novel. The basic premise of a boy from the Mumbai slums who learns the answers to all the questions in a KBC-type TV quiz show, by experiencing and surviving the challenges of being poor in modern-day India, was enough of a hook for a compelling sequence of vignettes of Indian life. But the book was not great literature, and the idea of capturing the diversity and paradoxes of India was not particularly new.
The movie is different. It is not a great movie, in the sense of it being likely to become an eternally watchable classic. Nor is the movie one of those that is exquisitely crafted and polished, so that one admires it endlessly as a work of art. Instead, Slumdog Millionaire is remarkable for capturing the globalized, energetic, paradoxical place that is modern India, with Mumbai being the distillation of all of those qualities. It is a global movie. Rather than being made by Indians for a Western audience, the director and screenwriter are British. Some of the unrealism in the screenplay reflects these foreign eyes—though one can apply the label “magical realism” to explain away everything. But it also means that director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy approached Mumbai’s extremes, its growth, ambition and sense of opportunity, with fresh eyes. They pursued the operatic and melodramatic in re-crafting the story and shooting the movie with a new love story, live sound, dynamic cameras and an eye for colour and movement. A small British crew was heavily augmented by, and integrated with, local talent in making the movie.
In many ways, the result has a Bollywood feel in depicting “extremes of emotion, jeopardy, desire and longing”. But it is not a Bollywood movie, nor does it need to jettison Bollywood roots or take self-conscious digs at them. Instead, it transcends the genre, and reinvents it in global guise. The clearest aspect of this is in the music. There are no Bollywood-style dance numbers to slow the action—though the ending credits provide a stylish homage to that tradition as well. Instead, the score propels the movie forward. It leaps across continents and styles, including the music of the Indian diaspora, the borrowings from Western popular music that have always existed and the uniquely rich and varied melodies and rhythms of Indian musical tradition. The movie’s music epitomizes the globalized energy of modern India.
So, Slumdog Millionaire, with a mingling of experiences, traditions and sensibilities permeating its story line, its visuals and its music, goes far beyond the novel as an experience and as an innovation. The West is not condescending or commanding, and the East is not kowtowing or imitating. This is a global collaboration, the nature of its fabric and structure, sinews and lifeblood, more significant than any sociological message in the tale of love and riches, tragedy and survival, that it tells. Salaam Slumdog. Salaam Mumbai. And maybe, “salaam globalization?”
Nirvikar Singh is a professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com