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And the award goes to...

Updated Tuesday 3rd March 2009

In the wake of Oscar success, the film Slumdog Millionaire provokes questions of national identity.

I rarely see films but I had to make an exception for Slumdog Millionaire. There seemed to be too much about it around me for me to partake in my social life without seeing it! It had hit the airwaves big time. Last Sunday the film won Oscars in eight categories, including coveted categories such as Best Film and Best Direction. Images of young members of the cast as they walked out on the red carpet of the award show were displayed in newspapers all over the UK. It was surrounded by the story of the night of British successes at the Oscars, to which Slumdog had clearly contributed. It was a proud night for British films.

The film Slumdog Millionaire was interesting at many levels. It draws on an internationally recognisable brand, the popular quiz show ‘Who wants to be a millionaire?’ The elements of the game show are familiar to many of us and phrases such as ‘phone a friend’ have forever become inscribed with the meaning it holds in the show. As such, the film draws on the international success of an entertainment phenomenon, and the franchising deals that have indeed gone on to help circulate this programme in many countries in the last ten years. Like some of the other popular shows, its national (in this case, British) origins have been subsumed by its international success.

However, unlike the programme, the film is clearly marked as British, drawing its ‘Britishness’ from the nationalities of its producer, director and some of its key actors. The success of the film at the Oscars has been lauded as an achievement of British cinema. Media discussions of the Oscar victory in the British press focused, right from the start, on whether this success is an indicator of the revival of British cinema and how future success at the Oscars for the country can be ensured.

Yet, it is not only the Brits who are making claims to this film. Rather like ‘Obama’ who may be simultaneously claimed by Kenya, the US and Indonesia at a minimum (though the Irish are in on tracing his routes to their land too) Slumdog too can be claimed by many others, most notably by Indians. For many Indians it is an Indian film as every scene is set in India, the narrative delves deep into the miseries of modern life in a Mumbai slum and the storyline is ultimately an unveiling of urban India. Indeed, for Vikas Swarup, the author of the book Q&A, on which the film is based, the story is wholly Indian. In an interview he says ‘I don't want to be branded as a writer catering to Western sensitivity. This is an Indian novel, rooted in Indian tradition, written with Indian idioms. It is an Indian story of Indian characters in the Indian milieu.'  Many of the film's actors, the music and much else draws on Indian people, places, objects, realities. The recognition received by the young actors from the Indian government is testimony to this claim.

Slums in India Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Photos.com
Slums in India.

However, other Indians have betrayed their ownership of the film, not with pride, but by denouncing aspects of the film as not reflecting India properly. An example of the perpetual issue of representation and replication that surrounds film analysis is the way in which the portrayal of Indian poverty, in particular, has troubled many people from/in India. Some see this as a peculiarly British portrayal – a vestigial imperial sentiment, of degradation of what has been lost in the disassembly of Empire. For others, it is not a fair depiction – it glosses over the complexity of life in urban slums. Still others comment on how they felt about this portrayal in the context of being part of a movie-going public in the US or UK. This portrayal of India seems to evoke more shame in British or American theatres, or while going out with British and American friends. These issues of representation and belonging become even more complex when understood as part of the film-going experience.

As I watch the recriminations and the adulations I am wondering what claims to national pride are being performed by the audience alongside those performed by the actors on screen? What exactly is being lost and created in these performances? Whose film is it? Or is its success that it creates either affection or disaffection in those who watch it. It perturbs them and who they are by making them reflect on what they see. Maybe that is why the award should go to…

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