Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Witness, the real movie.

So we all saw Slumdog Millionaire. Famous people took sides in the debate around whether Indian poverty should be milked by foreign peoples making Oscar-winning movies. Shouldn't we brown people have the first rights over our own poverty for whatever it is worth - all its spectacular sights and sounds and smells? Besides, it was a matter of izzat. Who knows what poverty and desperation is like, but really, we didn't need to be exposed to white people as being dirty and desperate, our kids blinded to beg, our little girls sold.

But whatever side of the debate we were on, we all agreed that the movie was good. What a story! A kid who has never been to school wins the Crore that has hundreds of millions swatting even when there are no exams to be cracked. And we all applauded loud enough when brown people won prizes given out by the same foreign people whose degree of comprehension and sensitivity we were doubtful of.

And then, of course, we forgot about it - the film, its story, what it was trying to talk about.

Slumdog Millionaire is not just about a poor boy who gets a million bucks and gets his childhood sweetheart at the end. If that was its core, it could easily have been a bank heist or a treasure hunt story. This is about a boy who 'wins' those bucks. Although he has not been to school. Nobody has even taught him informally. He has survived through his wits. And perhaps, life has finally opened a door - shown him a way to use all those hard-won scraps of information he stumbled onto along that dangerous survival track down which he was sprinting. That door was a show called KBC or Who wants to be a Millionaire?

But the main thing is, nobody believes him. Even the host does not believe that the boy knows what he knows, except for poor people in other slums, nobody believes he deserves to win. That story is a story of prejudice. Prejudice and disbelief lay at the heart of the narrative.

And though we have all seen the movie, it seems we never learn anything. We still carry around our prejudice and disbelief and barely concealed resentment at the fact that someone uneducated, someone who has been desperate and thus far unhappy, could have won something precious. Like a crore of rupees.

I don't watch much TV but I do read the news, and had heard about Rahat Taslim winning on KBC. She probably knew a lot of stuff I don't. For instance, while trying to write an article, I happened to need information about women elected representatives. I went online to google it, and happened to discover that Ellen Sirleaf was the first modern woman head of state in Africa. But I also came upon a website article expressing astonishment that a poor Indian woman should know this fact.

I am not bothered by the astonishment. Most of us would be, whether we admit to it or not. What bothers me is that somebody thought their astonishment important enough to put it on a website, and then to describe it in those terms: 'viewers balk at Rahat Taslim's 1 crore win'. Viewers balk, eh?

My first thought was that the writer did not fully understand the meaning of the word 'balk'. My next thought was that perhaps the writer didn't care. Perhaps, several readers didn't care either, because they did indeed balk at Ms Rahat's luck, even if luck was all she had.

Why is it still so hard to swallow that someone who had a hard life finally got lucky? When do we stop thinking of ourselves as somehow more deserving of windfalls than women who must sew clothes? Why do we never express such astonishment when middle class guys - people like us, or almost there - go on the same show and win, although we know quite well that we don't know many of the answers to the questions on the show? Just how deep is our prejudice?


Anonymous said...

I won't go so far as to say I am astonished but yes like everyone one else, I am a little surprised. And even a little proud if I may say.

But then Annie, I share my skepticism with a lot of people who believe Shakespeare may not have been the author of his plays. Again given his upbringing and background.

I am not drawing parallels but this woman indeed did very well for herself realizing the fact that nobody had expected her too excel at KBC. But I see no reason why so many people would like to question her merit to win the sum of money she won.

Pareshaan said...

Annie did you manage to see the show yet. Try and see it if you can.
Balk may not be the best choice here, but Rahat Tasleem was amazing.
I saw the show and I was blown away. Also I remember wondering whether this was "fixed" - get " a woman" and "a Muslim" with one stone.
I am ashamed to have thought this way but I did and even discussed the same with my dad.
She was that unreal - sharp, composed, self assured, willing to take a risk when required - she was really that good.
And these days it's hard to digest big doses of magic.

Gauri Sharma said...

I think it is because we have a certain image in our minds of people we think could be, say, achievers, successful etc, on the basis of how they appear - dress, their looks and their background etc. For eg; a woman could be dressed in a salwar-kurta and say apply 'sindoor', wear bangles and have a long plait so I guess our first impression would be - 'such a behenji' unless she opens her mouth and we find out who actually she is. I remember during my college days my college ,Kamla Nehru, was considered a 'behenji college' in comparision with Gargi or LSR, just because people ( i mean mostly guys) had an impression that girls from my college wore salwar-kurta more than jeans/trousers etc. And hence, when these 'certain' type of people, we thought were 'behenji', 'dehati', or a plain jane/john achieve something big, we 'balk' at them !!

Tess said...

Good post!

Its a prejudice, one that gets played by the media both ways.

There was the infamous quiz show scandal, in 1956, which perhaps rigged the show, precisely because they didn't want to show an average middle class person winning, at what would have been an 'intellectual' quiz. ( Details on wikipedia, and also made into an eminently watchable movie - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quiz_show_scandals)

On the other hand, the media could be contrarian these days, and even rig it the other way.

But in between the huge money and power that the media commands, the questions you've raised are the most interesting ones - why is it so hard for us to acknowledge that someone who's not done a PHD, could really know a lot of things, either learnt precariously in life, or perhaps just because they have a photographic memory, or they got lucky..

or ( gasp!), they're just smarter than us, inspite of our cheaply obtained education.

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