I remember during my first trip to India in 2009, Slumdog Millionaire had hit the United States’ theaters and most Americans seemed enamored by Danny Boyles’ portrayal of “the real India.” In contrast, many Indians who had seen the movie were not impressed with it and ultimately did not even consider it uniquely Indian.
While I remember appreciating the poignancy of Slumdog while watching it with my family, I remember that we had all agreed that it was far from being a characteristically Bollywood movie. Having grown up with an occasional Bollywood movie, I realized that Slumdog was different in a number of facets, but what struck me most were two things: 1) the lack of musical numbers, and 2) the ideology presented in Slumdog.
Musical numbers are key in Bollywood movies, but what is the purpose of the musical scenes in Bollywood films? They are not merely aesthetic, but they actually represent so much more. When two characters inevitably fall in love, a musical number can serve as the representation of the process of their courtship or development of their relationship, whereas American films might center an entire movie on the result that the audience knows will happen anyway. And in more liberal Bollywood films that want to imply a sex scene without breaking the taboo of actually including one (Bollywood films are still highly censored when it comes to male and female PDA), a musical number can imply the act. Slumdog was different in that it didn’t have to depend on the use of musical scenes. Expressions and feelings were explicitly and verbally declared.
Second, the ideology in Slumdog was atypical of most Bollywood movies. I remember Indian friends and family explaining that they thought Slumdog Millionaire focused a great deal on poverty; one person even laughed, commenting, “The movie was intended for the Western world, who never saw poverty–we see it every day! We don’t want to see it in theaters, too.” Indeed, the movie was pretty loaded down with the various issues that had taken place during the character Jamal’s lifetime growing up in Mumbai. The movie touches on Mumbai’s urbanization, the presence of gangsters, the cultural and religious clashes between Muslims and Hindus, and the obvious socioeconomic gap that exists in some of India’s most developed cities. That being said, the fact that the movie had included these issues seems to act as outside social commentary on Indian society. Though the movie had been based on Q&A, a novel written by Vikas Swarup, the fact that Swarup served as an Indian diplomat and probably had a more cosmopolitan and politically charged view of India speaks to the possibility of the piece being social commentary.
Bollywood and Hindi movies occasionally do include themes of gangster life, religious strife, poverty, corruption and the issues of urbanization and modernization—but they are usually not explicit themes and are often shrouded by an overarching love story. Slumdog seems to be a movie that encompasses overarching social issues present in India and is threaded with a love story. While Americans were enchanted by “that beautiful yet shocking Indian movie,” it did not necessarily gain the same attention in India. The difference in these viewing experiences speaks to the way in which globalization affects the portrayals and representations of other societies.