When Slumdog Millionaire scored multiple Oscar wins earlier this week, the award winning song Jai Ho roared through the streets of Delhi, blaring from rickshaws and ringing from mobile phones.
Jai Ho is Hindi for Praise, Hail, Hallelujah, or Victory. But, perhaps a more apt translation is India's "Yes We Can."
Many were captivated by shots of Indians cheering for the flim in Mumbai’s slums of Garib Nagar, but not all locals had their hands up in praise.
I appeared on The Curtis Sliwa Show on the ABC Radio Network and WNYC’s The Takeaway with John Hockenberry this week live from New Delhi to discuss the mixed response to Slumdog Millionaire’s bittersweet win. The appearances are posted here.
The points I made on air were reinforced last night at a gathering with my Indian friends, many of whom work in the business sector.
Sipping mixed drinks, a group of 30-somethings started to list their Oscar favorites. The Reader, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Milk. Their main thought being, with so many good films out there why did Slumdog get such millionaire-level acclaim? My friend Kishi was certain that the studios or Danny Boyle must have bribed the Academy. “And what is the big deal with Jai Ho—that isn’t even a good song,” Kishi remarked.
I proceeded to explain that what seems like day-to-day sights and trends for them—slum reality and catchy Bollywood tunes - are emerging as very novel, raw and even romantic in the west.
The larger question to explore: Is India being exported to the West through music and film in an authentic and just way?
Consider Danny Boyle, a director who came into India with what appear to be good intentions. Yet, there is no hiding that he is a Gora (white male) profiting off of a story that highlights India’s grimy underbelly.
And what about Smile Pinki, the Academy Award Winning Documentary focused on a little girl with a cleft palette in Uttar Pradesh. Here we have Director Megan Mylan – also white - focusing on the plight of India’s impoverished.
Is that the award earnng equation? Come to India (check), capture the pain and poverty so rampant here (check, check) and gain widespread acclaim (check).
This subtle resentment amongst more well-to-do Indians is best captured in Sadia Shepard's book A Girl From Foreign.
To summarize Shepard writes, there was an Austrian and Japanese Scientists in an Indian village outside of Mumbai collecting samples of dirt from the road. Two villagers walk by and one says to the other: “How sad they have no jobs in their own country so they have to come here and collect our dirt.”