When Indian and American dreams intersect

By Manish Chand

New Delhi, Feb 24 (IANS) It's not often the Great Indian Dream intersects with the Great American Dream. The spectacular Oscar haul of "Slumdog Millionaire" is one such moment, mingling Hollywood and Bollywood and putting the spotlight on a quintessential 'masala' film that won the hearts and minds of people in a country teeming with dollar millionaires.

The rags-to-riches story of a semi-literate chai-wallah (tea-fetcher) born in a Mumbai slum winning a Rs.20 million ($410,000) quiz jackpot has touched something deeper in the American psyche: the undying belief that anything is possible if you dream hard and work hard at it.

"It's part of the mythology of the American dream: the inherent optimism about human possibilities in a situation which looks dismal and hopeless," Lalit Mansingh, India's former ambassador to the US, told IANS here.

"In some ways the Indian dream and the American dream are similar. The movie has a simple message that resonates with ordinary people in both countries: talent and achievements are possible in bleakest surroundings," Mansingh said.

Not surprisingly, Slumdog's box office take in the US is almost six times its cost and is estimated to be over $100 million.

The movie's broader message has a special resonance in Barack Obama's America where "Yes, we can" has become a mantra of hope amid depressing recession.

The most interesting question for Priya Joshi, a US-based author, is why a film filled with maiming, murder and the torture of children, not to mention obscure references to a foreign film industry, has won the hearts of Americans.

"I guess the movie has resonated with an American audience in this time of economic uncertainty because it captures, and assuages, a vulnerability we all feel," said Joshi, who is currently writing a book on how public fantasy in Bollywood cinema is constructing the idea of India.

"We might not all become quiz show millionaires, but at least we can feel good watching someone else get the moolah and the girl," she writes while extolling the film's "message of globalisation and the power of popular culture to spread new ideas".

"The Oscar success of the film is also part of the growing awareness of India's soft power. For long, India has been the biggest producer of movies but now an essentially Indian film, although made by a British director with a large following in Hollywood, has been accepted as part of Hollywood," said Mansingh.

The hyper-real, hyperactive hybrid of melodrama and fairytale has been derided by some critics as overblown fantasy and yet another concoction of new cliches about India - slum children begging, gents and ladies swishing around in fancy cars, mafia bosses, molls, pimps, prostitutes and rioters cohabiting and thriving in the 21st century India that is on its way to becoming a major global player.

But the movie has transcended national barriers and become such a huge blockbuster for precisely this reason: the power of dreaming and fantasy in a world that sometimes too easily gives in to the hard realities of existence.

"The film provides fantasy to a world mired in financial depression and inspires a spark of hope," said Mansingh.

Radha Chadha, the author of "The Cult of the Luxury Brand", recalls how a predominantly American audience burst into "spontaneous applause" at the end of the movie in a theatre in Aspen, Colorado.

But after her initial cringing at what she called "an unadulterated tour of India's shame", she concluded: "If Jamal (the tea-seller who wins the quiz show in the film) can go from slumdog to millionaire - and do it with grace and integrity in the midst of every conceivable human depravity - then this is the spirit of a nation to admire," she wrote.

(Manish Chand can be contacted at manish.c@ians.in)

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