The Slumdog Of Hope

Global audiences can be captured through local production of movies

It is the most unlikely movie to win the mythical and glorious slot of Best Film at the Oscars. But when it did, last Sunday at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, Slumdog Millionaire raised the hopes of many filmmakers around the world that their hope to make it big in the big screen business is not, after all, a vain one. They saw in producer Christian Colson and director Danny Boyle’s millennial feat that they too can attain any possible heights in moviedom.

But wait, what the heck is Slumdog Millionaire? It is a movie that tells the story of Jamal Malik, an 18 year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai, who is about to experience the biggest day of his life. With the whole nation watching, he is just one question away from winning a staggering 20 million rupees on India’s version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” But when the show breaks for the night, police arrest him on suspicion of cheating; how could a street kid know so much?

Desperate to prove his innocence, Jamal (played by Dev Patel) tells the story of his life in the slum where he and his brother grew up, of their adventures together on the road, of vicious encounters with local gangs, and of Latika, the girl he loved and lost. Each chapter of his story reveals the key to the answer to one of the game show’s questions. Intrigued by Jamal’s story, the jaded Police Inspector (played beautifully by Irfan Khan) begins to wonder what a young man with no apparent desire for riches is really doing on this game show? When the new day dawns and Jamal returns to answer the final question, the Inspector and 60 million viewers are about to find out.

Shot in Mumbai, India, with virtually amateurish cast playing side by side with Bollywood star Anil Kapoor, the two-hour-long movie was produced in the United Kingdom by Celador Films and Film4. It was released there last November 12 by Fox Searchlight Pictures and in the U.S. on January 23, 2009.

The movie wasn’t given a chance by almost all the bookmakers. It couldn’t boast of a star-studded cast. The company that first agreed to fund it withdrew at the last minute. There wasn’t even a budget for top-rate advertising blitz. Seeing their weaknesses in the hideously dog-eat-dog competitive market, the producers even considered shooting it straight to DVD and selling it in stores rather than showing it in theatres. Then, slowly and unstoppably, the word spread (mostly by word of mouth): here was a small budget movie that could challenge the big guns of Hollywood.

Audiences around the world are seeing themselves in the movie. With the global recession eating deeper into pockets and economies, people want to be reassured about life; they want to know that there is still hope. The hope of a better tomorrow does not have to come through winning promos and rafle draws, but the reflection on Jamal’s ghetto life, his battles that led him to “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?,” are in us all.

Then came the 81st Academy Awards. The underdog movie went ahead to clinch eight awards out of 10 nominations, including Best Picture, Directing, Adapted Screenplay (Simon Beaufoy), Cinematography (Anthony Dod Mantle), Sound Mixing (Ian Tapp, Richard Pryke and Resul Pookutty), Film editing (Chris Dickens), Original Score (A.R. Rahman) and Original Song (A.R. Rahman). Even though it was made on a comparatively shoe-string budget (about $10 million), the film beat such productions by Hollywood heavyweights as its closest competitor, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, whose budget was ten times that of Slumdog.

This film, also known in India as Slumdog Crorepati, has proved or rather disproved so many points and demystified a lot of hitherto long-held “truths.” First, it showed that it is no longer big-budget productions that are necessary requirements for quality of a movie, its aesthetics, thematic correctness, and or audience empathy. Secondly, it dispelled the notion that to make it big in movie-making you must have the right amount of money. Slumdog was made for less than $10 million, a far cry from the budget of its nearest competitor, which was made for over $100 million.

How do we relate all these to our own home-grown movie industry? Movies in Nigeria are made in both English and local languages, principally Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. In fact, because of the plurality of language, there is no single film industry in the country; instead, we have a cacophony of cultures coming out of productions. Up north, where the Hausa movie industry’s growth has been stymied by censors, the main worry is about standardisation of production and impact on cultural mores. These are of more concern to an emerging society like ours, one which is bothered with the negative consequences of alien values. But the censorship regime in Kano has been less than honest with its declared war to sanitise the industry, often trading in doublespeak and incredible judicial violence, riding on the crest of popular sentiments.

Hausa movies are made on shoe-string budgets but many of them have shown promise of earning a global acclaim. All their makers require is further education on production expertise and finesse, as well as good money. With proper coaching, which foreign donors such as the French, the British and the American embassies in Nigeria have been willing to give (to the chagrin of local authorities), they could be made to capture the world and tell their own stories to it. This is because the Hausa society contains all the ingredients of the fairy tale notions that usually attract the global audiences of movies. If it can be done in other West African countries such as Benin, Senegal and Ghana where Suleyman Cisse and Sembene Ousmane proved their mettle, why not here?

Slumdog, which exports very many cultural baggage of contemporary India to the rest of the world, would never have been made in Kano, the hub of the Hausa moviemaking, even if its purpose was to deliver Hausa/Muslim culture to an enchanted audience abroad. The stultifying policies presently being rammed down the throats of the Hausa moviemakers are clearly meant to eliminate the moviemaking trade rather than reform it. The filmmakers are persecuted through arrests, fines and even jail terms.

This hidden target is futile, though. Its execution can only cause temporary pains for some and create great fear in the hearts of many others. At the end, however, the censorship regime will outlive its mandate and leave whatever remains of the industry. Reason: moviemaking is a global phenomenon aided by the new communication technologies. The best choice for authorities is to work on reforming it in order to conform to acceptable standards and local sensitivities rather than denigration and persecution. Let’s stop the pretended slumber and wake up now.

This piece was published in LEADERSHIP today

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