India Bets Big on 'Slumdog's' Oscar Success

Indians are starry-eyed over the Oscars.

The country's residents are betting big on the success of "Slumdog Millionaire" at the Oscars this Sunday, according to bookies in Mumbai. The odds are in favor of the film to sweep Best Director, Best Motion Picture and Best Music -- at up to 1.53:1.

A nod from the Academy would be a source of great national pride, as the Golden Globe and BAFTA award wins by Indian composer A.R. Rahman were. Pride is likely the reason for the extended, if now subdued, debate over the film's depiction of Mumbai life.

The question has been raised of whether "Slumdog Millionaire" is a Bollywood film, an Indian film or an international film. (Note: It's critical to bear in mind that Bollywood cinema by no means equals Indian cinema, although it's certainly the most popular style of cinema coming out of India).

The film does contain classic Bollywood elements of rags to riches, good versus evil, feuding brothers and the triumph of the underdog. What's different about it is the way these elements were portrayed in the film, both technically and in terms of storytelling. What has created a stir in India is that the international hit showcases slum life in India, too closely for some.

At a time when India is working hard to position itself as an international business and tourism hub, the film stings a bit. The patina of a not-so-shining India has fueled strong reactions, including that from Amitabh Bachchan. The Bollywood icon wrote on his blog, "If SM 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."

He later softened and all but recanted his remarks. Perhaps his was a knee-jerk reaction from a citizen whose city is still propping itself up after the heinous attacks that took place here in November? Hard to say, but there is a sense of protecting one's turf felt by many in a country where rapid change is occurring, but older, often negative images in media persist.

Controversy Calms Before Oscars

On the eve of the Oscars, however, the controversy has faded. The film is still running successfully in theaters in both English and Hindi, and most filmgoers are pleased to see India reaching big screens internationally.

"It's reality," said my camera assistant Samir. "That's the way life is for a lot of people here. And it's a great story, especially the way he used his own experiences to answer the questions on the game show."

Most were even willing to overlook the fact that a boy from the slums has an effectively British accent in the English version of the film, a mark of wealth, travel and an education that could never have been afforded to the film's protagonist. It's an outsider's look at India, but a universal, highly accessible tale at its core.

The film will certainly draw attention to India as a destination for international films, and serves as a great example of the power of knowledge sharing between India's rich film industry and others, including Hollywood. Add to that the capital that's still available here, and you've got yourself a deal.

Steven Spielberg, Nicholas Cage and Brad Pitt are all poised to get in on the act by making movies in India. As Bollywood goes global, Hollywood does not appear to be worried; it wants a piece of the action. Clearly, the success of "Slumdog Millionaire" is the beginning of a story that is just starting to unfold.

Simone Ahuja is the founder of Blood Orange Media, a vertically integrated media company in Minneapolis and Mumbai, and an associate fellow for the Asia Society, NYC. Blood Orange's new film series exploring grassroots innovation and social entrepreneurship in India will begin airing on PBS and internationally in July.