Slumdog Millionaire: I am happy for winners but is it realy an India win ?

I knew things had turned a corner when garden-variety Anglo-suburban Americans started correcting my Marathi, which is to say when they started regarding my use of "Bombay" rather than "Mumbai" as denoting an embarrassing lack of sophistication on par with using a fork and spoon, instead of chopsticks, at a Chinese restaurant. Not that I speak a word of Marathi, at least not a word one would use in polite company. And not that these would-be sophisticates do, either, but I'll bet dollars to dosas that it's only a matter of time before American hipsters start eating khichdi with their fingers in trendy Indo-fusion bistros.
Slumdog Millionaire? In the US, it's Slumdog Everywhere.
There were cheers in the South Bronx, where there is hardly an Indian-American to be seen, when Slumdog Millionaire won the best-picture Oscar. In midtown Manhattan's Murray Hill, aka "Curry Hill", the beatific visage of Freida Pinto smiles from shop windows, and India could do much worse than to have her as its current public face, even if many Americans believe her to be of Latin American rather than Indian origin because her name is "Pinto" and not "Muthukumarasamy."
Bollywood, along with its more urbane cousins in Indian art cinema, has long had a cult following here. Arthouse cinemas have Hindi film nights, though it must be noted that Americans take Bollywood much more seriously than Indians do - none of the furtive smoking and less-than-furtive cellular banter that characterise the authentic experience in Delhi or Bom- - excuse me, Mumbai. (Seriously, at the rate it's going, sensitive American tourists soon will be informing Mumbaikar taxi drivers that they really oughtn't to call CST "Victoria Terminus.")
It's not just Slumdog Millionaire, either. Chandni Chowk to China managed to break out of the foreign-film ghetto in its own small way, playing in suburban theatres, benefiting from Slumdog's buzz. Who knows, maybe even Salman Rushdie will start selling again.
My colleague Jay Nordlinger reports a recent brush with the biggest Indian star of them all, and it is illuminating: "On my way from Zurich to London, I see [Amitabh Bachchan] in the airport. In fact, he is on my flight. I approach him and say, 'Sorry to bother you, but I wonder if I could trouble you for a photo.' He says, 'How do you know me?' I say, 'Who doesn't?' Amitabh grins. But what he has asked me is very, very telling. He must not be used to being recognised by non-Indians. He has a strange existence of 100 per cent name and face recognition in India - a nation of more than a billion - and virtual anonymity everywhere else." He further reports that the Big B was flying coach. In truth, Bachchan isn't entirely anonymous in the US - within the past year, I've heard "Eer Bir Phatte" played at an American nightclub. (Yes, "Jai Ho" was the next song.) Never mind that the tune is a decade out of date, some things never go out of style. Yeh hai America, meri jaan.
Nordlinger, who has spent time in India, also makes a more serious observation: It's important for Americans not to romanticise India. (More important, of course, for Indians not to romanticise India, but that's another discussion.) But as India asserts itself in the American consciousness, this is worth keeping in mind: There are only two countries in Asia that matter to Americans right now - India and China. The future used to speak Japanese, but now the future gives you grief about saying "Bombay" instead of "Mumbai." Bombay has all but displaced Tokyo in the American imagination, and Kim Jong Il's North Korea is as much a punchline as a menace. But India and China are no joke. There's a Good Asia and a Bad Asia in American thought. Perhaps there should be room for more Asia than that, but Beijing remains uncontested as the capital of Bad Asia, a 21st-century expression of the "Oriental despotism" of popular lore and anxiety. The capital of Good Asia is not Delhi but somewhere between Bombay and Bangalore; Manmohan Singh may be the most highly regarded Asian statesman in the US, but India's clout remains primarily cultural and commercial rather than political.
Unhappily for India, the US has just elected what may be the most anti-trade administration and Congress since the Depression. A free-trade pact between the US and India would enrich both, but it is unlikely that Obama will pursue any such thing - and New Delhi's irresolute handling of the ASEAN free-trade agreement suggests that there are limitations on their end, too. India will naturally resist being reduced to a mere counterweight - to China, to Pakistan - and, after decades of lectures about its "potential", it finally has the strength to legitimately set its own course.
Strange, then, that India still seeks vindication in the West. An Indian who makes it big in America makes it Very Big Indeed, but saying that an American rock band is "big in Japan" is a joke at their expense. And though Republicans loved the idea of bestowing the Bharat Ratna on George W. Bush, American filmmakers still go to Asian markets seeking profits, not love. Even so, there is something to be made of this moment. Cultural currency is capital - limited, to be sure, but capital nonetheless - and America's intensifying interest in India is an asset waiting to be used.
Our nations have shared interests when it comes to such familiar issues as trade and terrorism, but there is more to international relations than interests, defined narrowly and politically. Americans watching Slumdog Millionaire may marvel at the sensory assault that is Bombay street life and recoil from the squalor of the Juhu slums, but they must also experience a sense, perhaps uncomfortable, of recognition. Multiethnic, multilingual, marked both by fierce entrepreneurial energy and economic anxiety, with both gods and gangs competing for turf, India is a foreign nation that's not so foreign. For reasons of ethnicity and history, and above all language, Americans tend to identify with declining, sparsely populated countries such as the UK and Canada. But the facts on the ground are different: India is the second most populous nation on the Earth, and the US is the third. We both have ruling classes that speak English and underclasses that don't. It is not in the future but in the present that our challenges should be recognised as more alike than different. Yes, India is still poor - for how much longer? Yes, America is surpassingly rich - for how much longer? It's not only young Indian chaiwallahs mooning away in dead-end jobs, dreaming of winning a million on a game show. Americans may not know the word crorepati, but they will. The word is in our hearts, if not on our tongues.


Blog Archive