Slumdogs and Village Girls
Bags packed, Helen and I sat in the weak morning sunlight outside our locked schoolroom, the great elasticity of Indian Time upon us. An hour later than agreed, and taller and more made-up than expected, seven teenage girls clattered into schoolyard.
“So sorry, yaar!” Usha exclaimed. She was dressed in a Barbie-pink salwaar kameez, an embroidered jean jacket, and high-heeled sandals, beige.
“Wow, Usha.” I managed. Between them, the girls had the rainbow more than covered: red and yellow and pink, lime green, deep purple, bright orange, electric blue – with lipstick to match.
We were going to Jodhpur to see the Hindi-dubbed version of Danny Boyle’s acclaimed film Slumdog Millionaire, re-named Slumdog Crorepatti. For some it was their first visit to Jodhpur, and for most it was their first cinema experience (Usha told me that, in 2007, Pooja’s mother (her aunt) had taken her and Pooja to the Nasrani cinema in Jodhpur and it had been ‘soo fun’).
The morning air was shot through with a nervous excitement, an excitement built (in a precarious, top-heavy manner) on wild expectations – expectations I doubted it would be possible to meet.
Rekha (our teacher, and Usha’s elder sister) telephoned her uncle’s friend, who was to drive us the two hours through the desert to Jodhpur in an old jeep, and who was also late. Eventually the jeep rumbled up to the school, and seven girls, two married women (both our students, our neighbours, and insistent hostesses), their three small boys, Rekha, Helen and I piled in. Having finally pulled out of the village onto the tarmac ‘main road’, then onto the Jodhpur-Jaisalmer highway, our driver stopped to let in the rather overweight man who works in the main road’s tiny Vodafone shop (and is thus, unimaginatively, known as ‘the Vodafone man’) – unbeknown to us, he had been promised a free ride to Jodhpur. He squeezed himself in and we set off. Five minutes later, pressed against the rusty jeep door, his ears filled with the high-pitched wail of a Bollywood love-song (enthusiastically accompanied by most of the jeep’s passengers), he began, no doubt, to wish he’d paid the 50 rupee (70 pence) bus fare.
It was still early, and cool. The road was empty, but the yellowy-brown of the surrounding desert was punctuated by multi-coloured lines of sari-clad women, balancing bulbous kalash water pots on their heads.
Ten minutes later, sixteen-year old Hemlata leaned over the already uncomfortable-looking Vodafone man to be sick out of the window – something she mostly accomplished. Clearly, the excitement of the excursion and her rich, morning nastar did not agree.
We pulled up outside Reliance Mart two hours later, make-up smudged, and universally damp under-arm.
Reliance Mart is a large, red supermarket – strongly resembling a Lego castle – situated in Jodhpur’s most middle-class area, Sardarpura. It sells everything from sliced white-bread to ready-made salwaar kameez, and houses a cinema on its fifth floor. We chose this cinema over other, more authentically ‘Indian’ ones for its family-friendly vibe: at the other choices the audience tends to be all-male, rowdy, and occasionally troublesome.
Inside we ordered samosas, pani-puri, kachori, mini-pizzas, and fifteen Mr Whippy ice-creams at the cafe. The three small boys of our party sat on the polished floor to eat and spread around their food (dining room tables are almost unheard of, and certainly unused in rural Rajasthan). I watched the girls take in the big, red-and-white aisle signs (‘Cereals’; ‘Confectionary’; ‘Spices’) and the humming escalators, the overweight mothers and their jeans-wearing daughters. For the first time all morning, they were quiet, paradoxically sudbued by the bright lights and chirpy tannoy announcements. We decided it was time to head to the cinema screens.
Upstairs Helen and I were invited into the office of Anish, the manager of Bioscope cinemas and a personal friend of our boss, Govind. The girls waited in the darkened foyer, amid larger-than-lifesize cardboard Bollywood stars, looking rather lost. Anish kindly gave us our tickets at a reduced rate, asked about our work and whether we liked India, and offered us coffee. He spoke to his Indian co-manager, Ashish, in English, explaining that the sizeable discount was for the good work we were doing.
Slumdog Millionaire is a beautifully shot and put-together film set in India, aimed at a Western audience. The ‘picturesque poverty’ (a phrase not mine but Kiran Desai’s) that foreigners find both exotic and shocking has neither appeal for village-dwelling naitives, I soon realised. True, the girls laughed out loud when Slumdog‘s young protagonist, trapped by his older brother inside the wooden hut of a primitive, communal squat toilet (a hole in the floor) for the landing of Bollywood king Amitabh Bachchan’s private jet on the strip beside their slum, and thus forced to chose between staying put and missing his hero – and – escaping through the hole and landing in the swamp of shit beneath, choses the latter. (He then pushes through the disgusted crowd, stinking and weighed down by the thick layer of excrement all over his body, and manages to have his prized postcard autographed.) But who wouldn’t laugh? It’s pretty funny. For the rest of the film, however, they looked bored and whispered audibly down the row. While previously overwhelmed by the supermarket, they were underwhelmed by the film.
What they really wanted, I knew (of course I knew), was Bollywood. They yearned for huge, airy concepts (often a mix of romantic, filial and patriotic love) over intricacy, or indeed plausibility of plot. They wanted life-affirming optimism, the security of well-loved plot formulae, and, above all, escapism.
I sensed a resistance in the girls, an unwillingness to consider the uncomfortable issues Slumdog raises. It wasn’t just boredom written on their faces, but a kind of determined blankness, mental censoring. And perhaps their resistance was understandable – for they were resisting drawing parallels with their own experiences of life in India, of the struggle, inequality and corruptness of life, at least.
The girls aren’t stupid, or gullible: they, of all people, know that Bollywood is fiction. Though they may not know the statistic (which is 95%), they know that most Indian marriages are ‘arranged’. They are aware that, in life, the bride-to-be’s lover does not sweep into her pre-arranged wedding ceremony, at the last moment, to convince her sceptical father of his worthiness, placate the stunned groom-to-be, and finally Get His Girl – all to musical accompaniment. What they know as life is quieter, less dramatic, all-together more boring. Many of their marriages have already been arranged: their paths, walked by their mothers and grandmothers before them, have been set out. They have agreed to such contracts (submissively, dutifully) and expect little in return.
All they wanted was one day of fantasy: one day to dress up, see something new, and pretend they don’t already know, roughly, how life will pan out. And I couldn’t blame them for that.
Why Slumdog is not Bollywood:
Khabi Khushi Khabi Gham
Literally: ‘Sometimes Joy, Sometimes Sadness’; made in India in 2001