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Slumdog and underdog
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 19 - 02 - 2009

Danny Boyle's latest creation encapsulates not only the struggle for survival in India, but also the challenges and opportunities faced by India's Muslim community, writes Aijaz Zaka Syed*
Slumdog Millionaire continues to rock. Unlike most movies in its genre, it has had a dream run at the box office and has managed to capture the imagination of stuffy critics. After winning five Critics' Choice Awards and four Golden Globes, the movie has bagged seven out of 11 Bafta awards.
My favourite musical genius, AR Rahman, has become the first Indian to win both a Golden Globe and Bafta. And there's more than a reasonable chance that the whiz kid will cap his rhapsody at the Oscars. So too may the other men and women behind the phenomenon of Slumdog Millionaire. The movie has landed itself 10 Oscar nominations, another feat for an Indian movie.
This is a rare moment of pride for the world's largest democracy and all that it celebrates and epitomises. A billion plus Indians are justifiably proud of this historic success of their own. Even cynics like me cannot resist joining in the celebrations.
Some nitpickers argue this isn't an Indian movie but a Hollywood production directed by a British filmmaker. Maybe they are right. Perhaps without Hollywood's hard sell, all those laurels may not have come Slumdog's way. That said; Danny Boyle's creation is as Indian as any other movie made and produced in India. It may not have that regulation "Bollywood" stamp, but it's indigenous in every sense.
From its amazing cast to its magical music and from its storyline based on Vikas Swarup's book to the milieu and lead characters that celebrate Mumbai's irrepressible and enterprising spirit, everything about the movie is rooted in and about India.
The rags to riches story of a Muslim boy growing up in Dharavi, Asia's largest slum, could be a metaphor for modern India. Like Jamal, the young protagonist, the country dreams big and thinks king-size, despite its myriad limitations and issues. It's a land where anything is possible, just as Jamal's impossible windfall on a television gameshow inspired by Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
Watching Rahman and actor Irfan Khan share the spotlight at the Bafta awards with director Boyle, I couldn't help see another metaphor, a subtext if you will, in Slumdog. This movie is also about the journey of India's Muslims.
Like Jamal, Indian Muslims fight daily battles for survival, and not just in Mumbai. Estimated to be more than 200 million, India's Muslims form the world's largest religious minority and the second largest Muslim population after Indonesia.
If most of the billion plus Indians struggle to make their proverbial ends meet, India's Muslims have to strive even harder to survive in Mumbai and the country at large. Statistics about the community are disturbing, to say the least.
According to findings of a federal commission, Indian Muslims are today worse off than the Dalits or low caste Hindus once considered untouchables. Some 52 per cent of Muslim men are unemployed, against 47 per cent Dalits. Half of them can't read and write. And while they have less than five per cent of government jobs, they account for 40 per cent of the prison population. These statistics are hardly a state secret, but they are seldom discussed by an Indian media obsessed with political correctness.
Interestingly, though, Muslims have done extraordinarily well in Indian cinema, or Bollywood, the world's largest film industry. They always have. Even after the partition that saw the exodus of talent and the cream of the middle class to Pakistan, Muslims have always dominated the industry that is incidentally based in the city that Boyle has so masterfully captured in his movie.
From legendary filmmakers such as Mahboob Khan to K Asif and from writers and poets like Sahir, Shakeel and Majrooh to musicians and singers like Naushad, Rafi and Talat, Muslims have virtually ruled Bollywood in every sphere. More so on screen: Dilip Kumar, feted as the greatest actor of the industry and a constant source of inspiration to biggest names in the business, is a Muslim. So is the current superstar Shahrukh Khan who was voted as the world's biggest movie star by Time magazine last year -- ahead of Tom Cruise and Will Smith. But Khan, often lionised as King Khan, has many other Khans for company, all of them big stars in their own right with billions invested in their movies.
Indian media has repeatedly reported how Bollywood's four big Khans have the industry divided amongst them. I am not sure if this is good or bad for their fellow Muslims, but I know that the Khans and Rahmans of Bollywood do offer great hope and inspiration, even if fleeting, to a demoralised community that has largely been on the fringes of the national mainstream, wallowing in self-pity and despondency since the partition and often blamed for it.
However, what really perplexes me is why Muslims, struggling in almost all aspects of national life including politics, have been doing so well in the cutthroat world of Bollywood cinema? One explanation could be the essentially secular and liberal nature of Bollywood. The industry is often and rightly held as evidence of India's truly plural character and the fabled tolerance of its all-embracing people. Indeed, there cannot be a better example of India's rich, melting pot diversity than Indian cinema.
However, I believe, there's a more mundane and plausible explanation. Since the Indian film industry -- just as any other big business -- is driven by profit, it cares not whether it's a Khan or Kumar as long as he or she is able to deliver on screen, drawing audiences to theatres on Fridays (most Indian movies are released on a Friday).
As hundreds of millions of rupees go into the making of a movie, a great degree of professionalism is naturally demanded and maintained. Open, honest and often ruthless competition ensures only the best -- la crème de la crème -- survives in the race. Muslims do well in Bollywood because it's still a fair and even field out there. They do not have to battle impossible quotas based on caste or inherent biases and prejudices of a system that barely tolerates them.
As a Muslim from one of the poorest and most squalid neighbourhoods in the country, Jamal is the ultimate underdog. Yet he takes on and beats the system. Indian Muslims will have to learn from Jamal and the never-say- die spirit of resilience that his character embodies if they really want to change their lot. It's not enough for them to be good. They will have to be better than the best to win.
* The writer is opinion editor of Khaleej Times.


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