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Mumbai-Set 'Slumdog Millionaire' Opens In India


The movie "Slumdog Millionaire" snagged 10 Oscar nominations yesterday, including one for Best Picture. The world seems to love this movie and today, it opens in India, where it was made. As NPR's Philip Reeves reports, the movie has already triggered a fierce argument among Indians about the way their nation is perceived by the outside world.

(Soundbite of Indian news broadcast)

(Soundbite of music)

PHILIP REEVES: India's media is ecstatic.

Unidentified Reporter: Well, our top story. After grabbing four Golden Globes, "Slumdog Millionaire" is on its way to Oscar glory as well. It's got...

REEVES: The movie is directed by Danny Boyle of "Trainspotting" fame and came out of Britain. But almost all the cast is Indian; so is the composer, A. R. Rahman. His music's won three Oscar nominations. Many in India are celebrating "Slumdog's" success as recognition of their nation's movie-making after feeling overlooked by the West for years - but not all. Arguments about the film have been raging on the Internet. Nandini Ramnath is a film critic based in Mumbai, or Bombay, as many still call the city. She's been following the debate.

Ms. NANDINI RAMNATH (Film Critic, Time Out Mumbai): Every few days, various people will say, I saw a pirated version of this film. I think it was really offensive. But somebody will rise up in defense of the film. These are all Bombayites. These are people from the city.

(Soundbite of movie "Slumdog Millionaire")

Mr. DEV PATEL: (As Jamal Malik) Latika! Latika! Latika!

(Soundbite of music)

REEVES: "Slumdog Millionaire" is a love story built around a poverty- stricken kid who wins a quiz show. It is set in a massive slum in Mumbai, India's richest city. That's one reason why some Indians are angry. They feel it focuses excessively on poverty and squalor, including prostitution and crime. The film's fans and foes have been slugging it out on various Web sites without mincing their words.

Unidentified Woman #1: I'm so sick of the common Western impression of India. India's always portrayed in that negative, degrading type of way.

REEVES: That's just one comment on the Net, but it typifies many. Nandini Ramnath says Indians tend to be sensitive about the way the West portrays them.

Ms. RAMNATH: India's always been very conscious, Indian government, Indian politicians. Large sections of the Indian middle class have been very conscious of their place in the world. So, yes, part of it is also, we're not just about slums, and we're not just about drought and famine. We're also about the tech boom, the information-technology boom, and so on.

REEVES: Just over a week back, the debate burst into life because of this man.

Mr. AMITABH BACHCHAN (Actor): There are two Indias in this country.

REEVES: Amitabh Bachchan, the patriarch of Bollywood, India's massive movie industry. When Bachchan speaks, his country listens.

Ms. ANUPAMA CHOPRA (Movie Reviewer, NDTV; India Today): This is a guy who has been a superstar for 30-odd years.

REEVES: Anupama Chopra writes and broadcasts about Bollywood.

Ms. CHOPRA: He is the elder statesman, and for a certain generation in India, there is no other.

REEVES: Bachchan has a blog. On it, he suggested "Slumdog Millionaire" might not have received such international acclaim were it not directed by a Westerner. The blog also states: If the movie projects India as a third-world, dirty, underbelly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky underbelly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations. Bachchan's since distanced himself from these remarks. A lot of his devoted fans have not.

(Soundbite of children playing)

KUHN: Some of them live here. This is Dharavi, the slum from "Slumdog Millionaire." It's one of the largest slums in Asia, a huge, fetid, teaming warren in the middle of Mumbai. The conditions are shocking.

(Soundbite of open street)

KUHN: Where all these narrow alleys that run through Dharavi, some of them are about as wide as a person. And it's very difficult to get down them. They've got open drains. I've seen a couple of rats running along. The smell, in some places, is pretty horrible.

(Soundbite of children chattering)

KUHN: That's not the whole story. Dharavi also a hive of economic activity. Businessman Shamsute Khan(ph) says a lot of the slum's multitude of residents are not actually poor by Indian standards. He said he's already seen "Slumdog Millionaire" and disapproves.

Mr. SHAMSUTE KHAN: (Through translator) Dharavi is not a slum in our eyes. We've got a leather industry that functions from here. We've got a textile industry that functions from here. We've got a lot of businesses going on from here. So, we're very hurt of the image that was portrayed on the screen.

REEVES: Some slum activists are now on the warpath. They want the film's name changed, saying it's an insult. Others disagree. Like more than half of Mumbai's 13 million-plus population, Nimal Kadir(ph) has lived in a slum all his life. Standing outside his hovel in Dharavi next to a sea of trash, he says he's glad "Slumdog Millionaire" focuses attention on India's poverty.

Mr. NIMAL KADIR: (Through translator) People have a right to see the way we live. Unless there's awareness, we won't get funding into the city, people will not come over to help.

Unidentified Man: We are now going to allow the television cameras to be able to capture the truth.

(Soundbite of people shouting)

REEVES: In the last few days, the makers of "Slumdog" have been in India promoting the movie. At a press conference in Mumbai, director Danny Boyle responded philosophically to the criticisms.

(Soundbite of press conference)

Mr. DANNY BOYLE (Director, "Slumdog Millionaire"): We've had the privilege of making the film and then presenting it to the world. And everyone has the privilege of saying whatever they want about it.

REEVES: So, how will "Slumdog Millionaire" fare in India? A Hindi-language version has also been released. Film writer Anupama Chopra thinks despite all the arguing, the movie will be a hit.

Ms. CHOPRA: I think it has enormous spirit, and it isn't boring for a minute. It's a fairytale that comes out of the Ravi(ph), and we like fairytales.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHOPRA: So, I think it'll do well.

REEVES: Phillip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: The soundtrack for "Slumdog Millionaire" is up for an Academy Award for best original score.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: And for the three nominees for best original song, two are from "Slumdog Millionaire," including this one, called "Jai Ho."

(Soundbite of song "Jai Ho")

Unidentified Singer: (Singing in Hindi).

MONTAGNE: From NPR News, this is Morning Edition. Our engineering supervisor is Kevin Langley, who's a real prize himself. Our star technical director is Brian Jarboe. Award-worthy audio engineers include Arthur Laurent, Stacey Abbott, Kevin Maynard, Gary Henderson, Stu Rushfield, and Renee Pringle with Theo Mondle at NPR West. Morning Edition's theme music was written by B.J. Liederman and arranged by Jim Pugh. I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.