It shouldn't have won
Frankly, I don't think Slumdog Millionaire deserved the Oscar for best film. And even more frankly, I don't think Resul Pookutty should have invoked "my country and my civilisation" in his acceptance speech for best sound mixing. India was not up there in the Kodak auditorium for approval. It was a British film financed by the indie subsidiary of an American studio which happened to be set in India and as a result they could not help but involve Indian actors (including Indian-origin Britishers) and shoot it in India. We crave too much for international recognition. A bit too much than is seemly. Even as all of us go around strutting, pretending to be a superpower.
Other than Slumdog, I have seen only one film out of the other four nominated. But I've read about all of them. The one that I saw is The Reader. The subject is far more intellectually challenging, emotionally moving and morally disturbing than Slumdog can ever hope to be. Not since A Last Tango In Paris has nudity (both male and female) been so necessary to a film's narrative, and so non-titillating and so touching. A film which stretches over 30 years and with essentially only two characters, and yet a film that is as gripping as a thriller. It's a film that, as my friend told me, demands and requires to be seen in one sitting, with no interruption by commercials and visits to the loo.
But look at the themes of the other movies that were nominated this year. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the love story of a man who is born as an extreme geriatric and keeps getting younger and dies as a newborn. Only for a brief period of time are the man and his beloved around the same compatible age. Of course it's an impossible concept and completely unbelievable, but it's a high concept. Milk is about the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the United States; Frost/Nixon about the first interview disgraced US President Richard Nixon gave, to has-been TV journalist David Frost. For both of them, it is a chance for redemption, for a somewhat sane life. These are all big themes. I am not doubting Slumdog's quality as a film in any way. Danny Boyle is one of the most talented directors around. But comparing Slumdog to The Reader is almost impossible. It's like comparing A Christmas Carol to Great Expectations.
Scrooge won, little Pip lost. But that's the way it has been with the Oscars. Sometimes the nominations reflect the mood of America's liberals, sometimes the winners reflect political correctness. In 2006, the following five films were nominated: Good Night and Good Luck, Brokeback Mountain, Crash, Capote and Munich. Good Night and Good Luck is about a TV broadcaster who took on the McCarthyist witch hunt in the 1950s; essentially about freedom of the press. Brokeback Mountain deflated the entire mythology of uber-macho frontiersmen by portraying a deep homosexual relationship between two cowboys. Crash interlinked several stories to study racism in all its forms and in startling ways. Capote was about the gay writer Truman Capote who travels to the South of the US to write a book on two multiple murderers. Munich told the story of the Israeli agents who hunted down the Black September terrorists who killed Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympics, and asked the question: To take revenge, do we become as base as the men who are our targets?
There's a clear pattern: anger over the Iraq war, the stifling of the media, the stranglehold of neo-conservatism, the contempt for minorities. The denizens of Hollywood were simply reacting to their world as they saw it. The other major critically-acclaimed movies of that year were Transamerica, about one man's battle to change his gender, and Syriana, which told Americans that their nation's policies were largely responsible for Islamist terrorism.
Then there's political correctness. Gandhi won Best Picture over ET. The Academy decided that the biopic of a great and influential leader was more "important" than the woes of a cute alien stranded on our planet. (This incensed Steven Spielberg so much that he decided to give the Academy the "important" films they felt comfortable with, and made The Colour Purple - which didn't win any Oscars - and Schindler's List - which raked them in.) Tom Hanks won his first best acting Oscar for Philadelphia, as much for his acting as for being the first major star to portray a gay man suffering from AIDS. In Hollywood, that's called "courage".
So The Reader can't win. After all, its female protagonist is a former Auschwitz guard who let 300 Jews burn alive in a locked church. The film's position on morality is too nuanced for the general Academy member to grapple with with any success. But Kate Winslet can be given the award for best actress. By taking this controversial role and baring her body so naturally for the purposes of art, she has shown "courage". Milk is about homosexuality, so Sean Penn gets the statuette for "courage", but not the film. Benjamin Button, which was co-produced by its star Brad Pitt, is probably seen as too much the case of an actor showing off, while being aided by more-than-state-of-the art visual effects. Frost/Nixon? Who's interested?
So Slumdog has won, and we should really rejoice for the six children who acted in it, for they are the real stars of the film. We should rejoice for AR Rahman, though the music he has got his two Oscars for is not even of his average quality, forget his sublime and exhilarating stuff. But the Academy has decided. But I really think it's a bit too much if we take this as a victory for Indian cinema. It's a non-Indian film which happened to have an all-Indian cast. We shoot entire films abroad nowadays, especially in the US, remember?