Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire seems to have left Bollywood redfaced and indignant. At least, that’s the impression one gets after hearing all the noises emerging from this sprawling, and largely unorganised, industry. But seen in the broader perspective of India’s journey into globalisation, it somehow seems to make some sense. And, seems somewhat predictable too.
Marque voices and some leading purse managers in the industry have been grudging in their praise of the movie, particularly after it swept the gongs at two global film award ceremonies, the Critics’ Choice Awards and the Golden Globe Awards, and looks well on its way to sweeping many other honours. The carping is about how the movie exploits Mumbai’s slum life and its squalor. This complaint is not new. Bollywood has often taken exception to renowned Indian film directors winning awards overseas for depicting real Indian life, as distinct from the reel life that launched many spurious dreams.
Broaden the debate a bit and it has an uncanny similarity to the voices one heard when India embarked on its economic reforms and liberalisation programme. Home-grown Indian companies, till then cocooned and sheltered by the governments’ protective policies, initially formed informal clubs to lobby for a continuation of the old policies or for special preferential treatment to Indian companies. Later, when that didn’t help, they pooh-poohed the chances of any foreign investor succeeding in the Indian market. Their common refrain: they do not understand the Indian market, they do not understand the granularity of different cultural strands that together make up the complicated Indian tapestry, or worse, they did not understand the “environment”. The last one is obviously a euphemism — what it meant was that the multinational corporations didn’t know how to finesse the Indian political-bureaucratic nexus to their own advantage, thus giving the Indian companies an inherent edge.
How wrong all those assumptions have been. First, many smart Indian promoters sold away their brands and companies to MNCs as soon as the gates were flung open, thus inviting criticism from some of the more patriotic industrialists. Then, most of the foreign investors found willing joint venture partners among Indian companies, eager to lend their names for a onetime fee. These “invading” companies also were able to “understand” the Indian market better by hiring the relevant local talent, at times by offering salaries and working conditions far better than the Indian companies. The same tactic was also used for massaging the environment.
All this is also symptomatic of Corporate India’s reluctant acceptance of the phenomenon known as globalisation. In the end, though, parts of India Inc have come out smiling. That’s because the inherently strong companies realised competition is a way of life and greasing palms cannot become an organisation’s core competence. In fact, many Indian companies also took advantage of globalisation to acquire brands, companies and markets overseas.
Cut to Bollywood, which also seems to be in the early phases of denial. Slumdog Millionaire probably represents, in some ways, the initial stages of the entertainment industry’s globalisation pangs. But, globalise it must, whether it is kicking or screaming. Bollywood is suffering from a valuation crisis, especially after the market meltdown. Many home-grown studios — which opted for a corporate structure to facilitate access to cash and to leverage the euphoric bull run — have now become easy pickings for foreign studios. Most of these studios had earlier promised foreign studios either joint projects, or even joint ventures with substantial stakes. Unable to wriggle out of these commitments, many of these studios are bound to lament – somewhat true to form — the erosion of Indian cultures, ethos and values.
Slumdog Millionaire also represents a different way of doing things, in sharp contrast to Bollywood’s entrenched practices. Take casting. The film crew scoured countries and cities to search for the right faces; the boy, in fact, is a non-resident and the girl is a totally new face. The film producers and director even auditioned the young boy and girl together to see if they had the right chemistry on screen. In Bollywood, the leading man is decided mostly on a whim and a fancy, long before the screenplay is finalised. If it’s a big budget film from a well-known studio, the lead role is then usually reserved for the son of the studio promoter. In many cases, the leading man also dictates the choice of the female lead, script be damned.
In this case too, as was the case with Indian industry, the foreign studio has found Indian talent and financiers willing to risk their gifts and their finances on Danny Boyle because he comes with a past, a successful track record of having directed some very cutting edge cinema. Danny Boyle’s nationality — or his lack of Indian roots — never made any difference. What mattered was his craft.
There are many Indian companies which are happy to cater to only a market niche and do not desire global markets, but are eager to run their companies on global best practices. Likewise, there will be cinema that will cater primarily to Indian audiences but will be produced by implementing global best practices. And, that’s going to make all the difference.
Courtesy: The Economic Times