Slumdog Millionaire, an Oscar Favorite, Is No Hit in India

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On Friday, a day after Slumdog Millionaire was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, the movie filled just 25% of the seats for its debut in theaters across India, the country of its setting. Buoyed by the hype the movie has generated in the U.S. — along with its Oscar nods and four Golden Globe awards, Slumdog on Sunday won the "best cast" award from the Screen Actors Guild — Fox Searchlight released 351 prints of the film across India last weekend. But while Indian critics have largely embraced the movie, audiences are not flocking to the film. Theaters showing the movie averaged 50% of capacity on Saturday, which was an improvement over the opening day but hardly a 21-gun salute. (See TIME's top 10 movies of 2008.)

Fox Searchlight executives say they are happy with the film's performance, pointing out that its weekend take of $2.2 million was the highest for any Fox film released in India, and the third highest for any U.S. release ever in that country — behind Spider-Man 3 and Casino Royale.

The Indian critics, too, have been enthusiastic. "Hats, caps and wigs off," wrote Khaled Mohammad in the Hindustan Times on Sunday, calling it a "masterwork of technical bravura, adorned with inspired ensemble performances and directed with astonishing empathy." Added critic Rajeev Masand, "It's a great, fun film with a big heart. The success of the film lies in the fact that it's told using the Bollywood idiom — the West has embraced this unique, unusual format." And therein lies the rub. What works for the West may not necessarily work for India.

"The majority of viewers — the small-town moviegoer, the urban, Hindi-speaking market — looks for star vehicles, for masala," says Masand. "They won't care much for this one." For many Indians, the film's subject and treatment are familiar to the point of being banal. A lot of Indians are not keen to watch it for the same reason they wouldn't want to go to Varanasi or Pushkar for a holiday — it's too much reality for what should be entertainment. "We see all this every day," says Shikha Goyal, a Mumbai-based public relations executive who left halfway through the film. "You can't live in Mumbai without seeing children begging at traffic lights and passing by slums on your way to work. But I don't want to be reminded of that on a Saturday evening." There is also a sense of injured national pride, especially for a lot of well-heeled metro dwellers, who say the film peddles "poverty porn" and "slum voyeurism." (See pictures of Mumbai picking up the pieces after the terrorist attacks.)

"O.K., so there's filth and crime in India, but there's so much more too," says Jaspreet Dua, a New Delhi–based business manager with an international luxury brand. "What they've shown is not reality. There's a lot of exaggeration and harping on well-worn clichés about India." (See 10 Indian films to treasure.)

There have been films about Mumbai slums before — most notably Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay (1988), which enjoyed critical success on the festival and art-house circuit. But many believe the reason that Slumdog has been raking in awards is simply that Western audiences haven't seen many films like it before. "It is a good film, no doubt," says Manpreet Singh, a graphics designer based in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh. "The narrative style and the plot are interesting. But if I speak for Indians like me, there's nothing new in it for us. It's saturated with stereotyped images of India. The expectations that had built up [around the film] were bound to make it a letdown." Vikas Swarup, author of Q and A, on which the screenplay is based, says Slumdog might have "fallen by the wayside if it had been made 20 years ago." He says at least part of the film's success is because "India is the flavor of the season. People want to know about this country of 9% growth and enormous variety. People want to see what makes India tick." (See the top 10 movie performances of 2008.)

The film generated controversy in India even before its release there. A Jan. 13 blog entry by Bollywood maharaja Amitabh Bachchan, in which he asked if the film would have generated such hype if it had been made by an Indian director, led to an avalanche of Bollywood stars and critics taking positions for and against him. On Jan. 22, some 40 slum dwellers protested outside the Mumbai home of actor Anil Kapoor, who plays a leading role in the film. The protesters held banners reading "I Am Not a Dog" — referring to slumdog in the film's title — and "Poverty for Sale." Two days earlier, a slum leader in the central Indian city of Patna took the Indian cast and crew of the film to court for allegedly offending slum dwellers by the pejorative in the title. He said he didn't expect any better of the British people associated with the film, because their ancestors called Indians "dogs" anyway, but that the Indians should have known better.

Not all slum dwellers have been as down on the film. In Dharavi, the Mumbai slum where parts of the movie were shot, many say they want to watch it. "I liked the songs," says Vittal Naravane, who runs a printing workshop. "And I liked the idea that even if you're not educated, like the hero of the film, you can be successful by dint of your common sense and hard work." This message of hope seems to have worked for many among India's lower middle-class aspiring for a better life. "The film only shows what is real," says Rakesh Nair, a driver in New Delhi. "If it's set in a slum, there's going to be garbage. It's those who are making lots of money who are cribbing about the film showing the dark side of India. Those left behind are loving it because they can empathize with the film's hero."

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