Sunday, February 01, 2009

A word on slumdog.

I just came back from a dinner with a friend who had extremely strong views against the movie. I was not surprised. None of the people I interact seem to like this movie, except for my American cousin who thinks it is great. Universally derided, more so for the cluster of BAFTA and Oscar nominations that it has garnered. Does it really deserve the accolades that it has been showered with? I think the unanimous answer is no, it doesn't. Does it matter? Not to me.
The Oscars or the BAFTA have never been a good adjucator of excellence. At best, they are a judge of popularity. But considering this is one of the very few India-themed movies that make it up on the popularity charts of western world, it is bit of a concern that it peddles an unrealistic and half-baked image of India to the imagination of the world. Valid point and a lot of people have opined on this aspect.

My friend from the dinner was particularly miffed at the sudden development of American accent in all the main characters as they grew up in the movie. While the accent of Jamal could be possibly explained as something he picked up at the call centre but what about the rest?
I really think that the reason for this was quite deliberate. The Indian accent is not a very well received one in the US. Any character with an Indian accent in the American mass media is depicted negatively, quite often as a comical character. The American audience is tuned to laugh whenever they hear the Indian accent. It is very similar to how they use German accent to signify villainy.
'Heroes' is a very strong example for me. There is one recurring Indian character in the series who is supposed to have been brought up in India but speaks with an American accent. Also, when he converses with his family, he speaks to them in (accented) English and as weird it might seem, they (his father and mother) also speak English with an American accent. There are Japanese characters in the series who speak with a pronounced Japanese accent. Which is why I think the choice of the accent in the series is very calculated and deliberate. Hollywood has deemed that it cannot portray a positive, intelligent character with an Indian accent. If they do, they might lose some easy ways to get laughs. I remember making this point in the comments of some American blog that deals with issues of race but was completely ignored.
This negative connotation of the Indian accent is the reason why, in spite of the obvious and somewhat grating dissonance with reality, the grown up characters of Jamal, Latika and Jamal's brother speak with an American accent. For me, this shows that Hollywood is well aware of the stereotypes it creates and knows how well to use them. It is a Hollywood film made for the American audience, and I guess we should look at it as such. It provides no insight into India besides reiterating the conception of the country as the land of the Taj Mahal and poverty. There is a lot of injustice in this country - class, caste, religion, etc and this movie deals with none of them.

PS. Another film that can be analysed similarly is "Valkyrie". I haven't seen it but from the trailer one can see that all the guys who are depicted as plotting the assassination of Hitler have British or American accents, even though the characters are German...

UPDATE: Russell Peters makes it so obvious...

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