Ajay Sinha on the 2009 Academy Awards

Tuesday, February 17, 2009 - 12:00

As the eighty-first annual Academy Awards ceremony approaches, Questioning Authority asked art history professor Ajay Sinha, coeditor of Bollyworld: Popular Indian Cinema through a Transnational Lens (2005), for his thoughts on Slumdog Millionaire and the other nominees for Best Picture.

QA: Slumdog Millionaire, based on the 2005 novel Q & A by Vikas Swarup and directed by Danny Boyle, has been nominated for Best Picture. Is this the beginning of a Bollywood invasion?

AS: I don't see Slumdog representing a Bollywood invasion, partly because of my understanding of the global history of Indian films. Historically, Bollywood has long competed with Hollywood for global markets and often superceded it. In many cases, as in Africa or the Middle East, Bollywood films captured people’s imagination far more than Hollywood, partly because Hollywood has strict control over its markets (at high cost to its distributors), while Bollywood films circulate more cheaply, and even in pirated versions, inspiring many local filmmakers to copy and adapt (e.g., as it happened in Nigeria, in the industry called Nollywood). It is true that only recently American and English filmmakers have become seriously interested in Indian films. This may be less due to "invasion" of Bollywood and more to do with either the provincialism of the filmmakers themselves, or their awareness of shifting markets, especially a dramatic shift in the demographics of their audience towards immigrants in the U.S. from those very Third World countries where Bollywood had previously reigned.

QA: Some have criticized the movie for depicting India in a stereotypically negative light. Do you find this objectionable? Would the criticism be less valid if an Indian filmmaker had directed the movie?

AS: There is much current controversy regarding the authenticity of Slumdog Millionaire. The objection to its depiction of India's poverty was initiated by a blog of a Bollywood actor we may call the czar of Indian films, the superstar Amitabh Bachchan, and it has now become an issue for nationalists in India. I am not interested in taking sides in this controversy, nor am I offended like the nationalists in India. In fact, I find this kind of question boring. As a historian, it seems to me only another instance of our inability to distinguish between film spectacle and realities that people live or do not live on the ground.

QA: The five movies nominated for best picture are: Milk, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The first three films are based on historical events, and Benjamin Button, although fictional, has strong historical underpinnings. Do these films represent a shared wish to look backwards rather than forwards?

AS: I am intrigued at the desire to see history (or in the case of Slumdog, the "reality" of India) in these films. It is a remarkably different response when compared to earlier critics, who used to comment on the way history is turned into a cinematic spectacle, for instance during the classical age of historical films (Ben Hur, Joan of Arc, etc.). In other words, earlier the question was not what is historical or real, but how Hollywood constructs spectacular fictions out of history. In recent years, filmmakers seem to have taken the role of historians themselves as they pull out from the past stories that may not be normally known to anyone but specialists. Perhaps, Spielberg's Schindler's List could be the first history film in this sense, and Frost/Nixon too seems to be in this genre. It is telling that in the "history" films you mention, most discussions have revolved around how accurate the historical depiction is, and similarly in Slumdog Millionaire, the controversy is not about cinematic spectacle but about the reality or truthfulness of its representation. I feel worried about this loss of our ability to distinguish between film and history, and the interest of filmmakers now to depend, and cash in on, this ignorance of a self-deluding audience.

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