Thursday, January 15, 2009

Southern Slumdog

Southern exposure

Today, after visiting my new landlords at the Lazimpat flat (I am SO excited at the prospect of buying dishwashing liquid, rubber gloves and coffee think I'm kidding??), I went to my favourite Bengali sweet shoppe Trishna Mitai and pigged out on Sambar Vada, Uttapam and Idly
in honour of Pongal. Here's a fun story about Tamils celebrating Pongal in Sri Lanka.

That Slumdawg won't hunt
Last time, I wrote something about the widespread defensive attitude (not 100%, mind you) of Indians toward the success of Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire. I also left some rather impatient comments on another blog.

In case you've been asleep for a few weeks, lotta folks are huffing and puffing about Slumdog's portrayal of Indian slum life, mostly because it's too accurate. (Wonder what the slum dwellers themselves think, has anyone asked them? All the comments I have read are from upper crust writers.)

I can't write with authority about what it's like to be Indian and see a film that shows so much of the country's dark side to the world. But I have a comparable experience. I do know what it's like to be an American Southerner and see Hollywood films, famous ones, award-winning ones, represent my "country" (we almost were another country, fought a war over it, remember) to the world.

There were lots of , and still are, negative sterotypes about my country (the South). When I moved to New York in 1981, I was asked derogatory questions like "Do you even wear shoes down there?" and "where do you live, a trailer park?"

And even,
"Did your ancestors own slaves??"

"Everyone down there belongs to the Klan, right?"

...and from an Indian girl, "If you wear your bindi down there you'll get shot at." (There actually were, in fact, at least 2 "dot-head" murders...I think they were both in Canada.)

The vast majority of Hollywood films about the south - which is where people get these ideas - were made by either Yankees or Californians (same thing, ha). Outsiders.

Some were romanticized epics (Gone with the Wind), some consciously tried to redress such romanticism by showing an uglier side Cold Mountain).

Others retold true stories in a condensed, dramatized and only partially "true" way so that important but largely unknown eras in American history would not go unknown by a new generation (ie,
Mississippi Burning).

There's loooots more (Glory, Matewan, Birth of a Nation, To Kill a Mockingbird, Sling Blade, Deliverance, Mandingo, Roots, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Streetcar Named Desire, Forrest Gump.... ). Most of the above are full of slow-witted, slow talking hicks and obligatory Klan meeting scenes.

Don't forget television like Andy Griffith Show, Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, Alice, Designing Women, Hee Haw and so on.

My point is this: the vast majority of this media was made by "outsiders." Some of it (especially the romantic stuff) Southerners appreciated; most of it, they did not. Some of it I personally enjoy, a lot I have mixed feelings about.

But even when I didn't think they got it right, I usually felt the topics (mostly race history) needed to be discussed.

Usually they didn't cast Southerners in the parts; since pretty much anyone can "do" a southern accent, right? Just sound real dumb. (Marlon Brando's accent was dreadful in Streetcar and he was nominated for the Oscar.) And Black Americans are all sort of considered by casting directors to somehow be Southern by default.

Seeing your homeland represented worldwide, by an outsider, is a sensitive thing. The point is, no one ever, ever questioned the outsider's right to make such films or shows, whether we liked them or not.

Why do Indians think that they and they alone can give "permission" to someone to discuss or represent their country in media ? Besides which, the book on which Slumdog is based was written by an Indian (as Streetcar and Mockingbird were based on books written by Southerners).

I certainly hope no one ever questions the "right" of an NRI or Indian visitor to make a film about an America they perceive, however derogatory or partially-representative that may be.


Linda-Sama said...

people have stereotypes about every part of the US. do you have any idea how tiring it got for people to put their hands like their shooting a machine gun and make machine gun noises and say "Al Capone" when I told them I was from Chicago? now I doubt that anyone knows who Al Capone was and what the F does he have to do with Chicago?

and me being from the south side of Chicago -- where the "colored" live -- is one huge stereotype in the minds of north siders and white bread suburbia. I'm sure New Yorkers have the same type of city stereotypes.

and the first time I went to India I was asked (just because I'm American) "do you own a gun?" and "why are you not fat like Americans?."

talk about stereotypes. ignorance isn't a north/south thing.

c said...

nice writeup, but wan't marlon brando's character an eastern european immigrant newyorker called Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar?

Anam Arsalan said...

"I can't write with authority about what it's like to be Indian and see a film that shows so much of the country's dark side to the world."

Nothing new. I am an Indian quite used to seeing the dark side of India on the celluloid screen. Time and again films on the subject have been made. Let’s not forget how popular Salaam Bombay was…but it never got a Golden Globe – coz it was made by an Indian director. But this time (in Slumdog’s case) it was different…there was a Firangi director behind it…and the result awards galore.

No, I have not seen the movie, but I bet it’s no different from the earlier ones that have been made on the issue (slums or a guy from it making big – Our very own Big B became famous doing such films).

And as far as A.R. Rehman’s music is concerned…well he always delivered the same kind of music and he has been doing it for years…why did he not get and award earlier?

Dark side ….bullshit!

BTW do see my blog

John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
c said...

salaam bombay actually, won the grand prix at cannes.

John said...

Damn, all this talk about the South makes me crave for watermelons.

Too bad it's not the season... :-(

Frankly I always preferred Southerners for their "juicier" contact with life - and watermelons are such a nice symbol of that - and tasty too... Slurp, slurp, slurp...

Sirensongs said...

@Linda: Every area has its stereotypes; in the case of the North or NY, however, most media about those places was made by people FROM those places (Scorsese, Coppola etc). Not so with the south.

@Ansalm: no one cares what colour the director is; M Night Shyamalan has had quite a bit of success Stateside. the question is, what KIND of film is being made. For ex., "Citizen Kane" (usually acknowledged as the pinnacle of western filmmaking) is not shown on Indian TV, not because of prejudice, but because generally that audience doesn't appreciate 2 .5 hour long black and white dramas in English with no music numbers. If AR Rahman's great music had appeared in an otherwise "western" movie i have no doubt he would have won even an Oscar by now.

@C: My understanding was that Kowalski's character had married into and lived in the south and was meant to have "summat" of an accent like all other long term residents.

@John: We eat watermelons here in Nepal and India, too.

Stirling Davenport said...

Your post brought back a lot of memories for me. Being that I'm also a Nashville girl, both my parents were Southern, so when we moved up north, it was a bit of a shock for all of us. My biggest faux pas was calling the teacher "Ma'am" and getting laughed at. Anyway, Dad was great friends with Andy Griffith - they were only a year apart and Andy was a true good old boy according to my father. Anyway, we used to crowd around the TV any time the Dillards were on the Andy Griffith Show because there is nobody who can play a banjo like Rodney Dillard. Thanks for the memories, kid.

Raghubeer said...

Dear Sirens,

Why do you call yourself a Indologist if you live in Nepal and constantly degrade India. You claim to be admirer of Hindu traditions but are obssessed with Dalai Lama who is number one politician.

You are from south of US? Hollywood might be portraying to innaccurate but did not south the bastion for Christian imperialists who pour billions to convert Hindus? So maybe there is some grain of truth into it by Hollywood. Also aren't blacks treated like second class citizen because of racist prejudices in many parts of America? Majority of whites and whites from South voted for McCain. I know as I am student here in Raleigh.

c said...

Dear Raghubeer. I call myself indian and I live in PA in philadelphia.

dont make me come down to raleigh and whup your ass.

learn to speak to people like as if they are sitting in the same room as you.

you want to give sirens a certificate, first get out of north carolina, go to triplicane, live in the chawls where ragpickers sniff glue because it will make them less hungry. do this for six months. then talk...

sitting in a cmfortable room in north carolina it is easy to spout out against peole that live half a world away.

the correct attitudes are developed if (as gandhi said) you walk a mile in your opponent's shoes.



Anam Arsalan said...

Hi Sirensongs

My name is Arsalan and not Ansalam. Thanks

"If AR Rahman's great music had appeared in an otherwise "western" movie i have no doubt he would have won even an Oscar by now."

Does it mean that the Westerners don’t have enough foresight to judge what’s good and what’s not?

Does that also mean that the Westerners live in a closed compartment and only appreciate things that they know without even caring to know if something better keeps happening on the other side of the globe.


Does it mean that the people who judge who should get an Oscar and who should not are wearing blindfolds with REGIONALISM written on them in bold.

Thanks anyway.

Hey do visit my blog

Rohit said...

Your blog is a singular, hilarious melange..and, if you really know hindi, typical khichdi..
the specific reaction to slumdog?
Plz visit. and, I seriously salivated at your mentions of pongal, utttapam...south indian dishes, speaking as a "Northie" are killer!

Sirensongs said...

Hi Anam: @Anam: The Oscars are American awards. They have a special category for international films.

you wrote: "Does that also mean that the Westerners live in a closed compartment and only appreciate things that they know without even caring to know if something better keeps happening on the other side of the globe."

Have you, Anam, seen the Bicycle Thief, Citizen Kane, the Kurosawa trilogy and other pinnacles of foreign cinema? What about your family and neighbors, do they know these films? unless you and your billion country men have seen these works, by your logic, they too are wearing "regional" blindfolds.

Let's continue your logic: Just to be fair, I think STARDUST Awards should now go to Bergman, Woody Allen, Tarantino and Kurosawa...otherwise India is blindfolded and "regional." (see how silly it sounds?)

Westerners don't get to see most Indian films because they are not titled in English or other Euro languages. I also do not watch German, Japanese or Spanish films that do not have English titles (though most of them, sensibly, do). I wouldn't expect Europeans to see US films that were not titled in local languages, either.

Instead of sitting round whining about recognition, other foreign filmmakers title their films into English, French etc. so a wider audience can appreciate them. Want a billion Chinese viewers? Better use Chinese titles.

The "English" films that made it big in India (Titanic, James Bond, whatever other sentimental rot mainstream India likes--mainstream everywhere is pretty rubbish) did so because they were dubbed. If you want to reach an audience, speak their language.

Rohit said...

my god siren! truth hurts, you know, and we Indians dont like to hear it, unless a semi-religious "pseudo-Godman" didactically proffers us. Its just that it sounds way too patronising, coming from thyself. Not that, it was ur intention. And, I know.. we under-20's i.e., >50% of this over-populated country, are terribly disillusioned with our identities. For instance, all the movies you mentioned, well I have seen most of them and many of my peers in my campus have too...imagine our situation- perpetual, incessant inundation from western liberal arts aka Hollywood et al, and the opportunity to express our own? Almost non-existant. All the guys, I know(and we arent the elite) love our sitcoms, but the life it shows is terribly alien. Its an identity crisis of a magnificent scale- evinced in the dichotomy of India-shining and rotting.
As, to your points about India crying foul over the regional nature of the oscars, come on, most of us(educated ones) are still in colonial hangover and the rest suffer from ingrained weird notions of racial inferiorities. U know how many stares a "gora" "phoren" "firangee" gets...its funny, exasperating and profoundly degrading. So, we want "worldwide" recognition.
Change is quite distant.
Now, why did I write all this balderdash? its just crap..
i know this sounds totally disconnected.
Guess it must be the extra spice in saambhar talking..oh! man, i cant stop myself rom bandying south-indian dishes at you! its profoundly weird imagining a foreign palate accepting that diarrhoea-inducing singular culinary creations.
Khudaa aafis!

c said...


its all your fault. you like sambar from saravana bhavan , so now we sambar drinkers(feeders) need to clean up our centuries old bad habits to suit yo' south US originating East village living punk badass worldview and outlook.


Sirensongs said...

@Rohit: Why does it sound patronizing coming from me, after all, I am just a hick from the South...? I don't even have a British accent like you guys. ;-)

I am really impressed that you have seen all those films, I do think it make you part of a global elite...since even in US mostly just cineastes and power nerds have seen them. Majority of mainstream US, like anywhere, prefers action crap.

It's part of post colonial neurosis to win independence, then beg for acceptance from the people you're trying to disdain....I guess. Similarly in US, British upper class accents still denote "class" and "authority" and education.

John said...

Dear Raghubeer,

You say that a majority of Whites from the South voted McCain.

Isn't that their democratic right?

I also notice that the media and the self righteous ones find it perfectly OK when Blacks vote for Blacks just because they are Black.

But if Whites do the very same thing, then it is vehemently condemned.

c said...


do both blacks AND whites have democratic rights in the south?

the next thing you'll be telling me is that we have a black president!

John said...


You say: "do both blacks AND whites have democratic rights in the south?"

Of course they do. But isn't that part of my point?

Read my comment again.

John said...

Ah, and about that new US president... The voice of Saruman.

Here is a great link:

c said...

i vehemently condemn it.



The Bananafish said...

Your thread seems to have been hijacked, SS.

Very interesting how some now relate to the South, who not long ago stated on this blog they would not travel there. It is much easier just to deal in stereotypes than the complexities of regionalism.

Regarding the voice of Saruman: Obama's words have meaning, and his first 48 hours in office have shown this.

I heard a rumor that Slumdog has not been released in India. Is this true?

Sirensongs said...

Who the hell is Saruman?

Thanks, Bananafish and C. for Troll Control Duty.

Stirling Davenport said...

Saruman was a villain from J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" saga. I'm so glad you have the power to delete comments, Siren. Like any good home-maker, we remove the trash. Even in our Southern trailer camp. (smile)

Linda-Sama said...

hey, SS, your pal John here is now trolling over at my blog, Ageless Hippie Chick. I sent him over to a man's blog who he can play with but I'm thinking he only likes to hassle women, the brave man.

c said...

ask him to stalk my blog ( ) i can use the controversy.

Raghubeer said...

Just to follow up on stereotypes:

Bollywood always does stereotypes. First it was against South Indians, "madrasis", check out "Padosan", classic movie by the way!

Now lately Bollywood has tendency to be insulting towards people from UP-Bihar belt. Infact, this is very evident in many urban Indians themselves.

When I tell them I am a Bihari, they immediately change to expressions of disgust. Most of the time it is very subtle, but it is there and always hurts.

Jai Bihar!

Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...

@Raghubeer: Yep, Indians love to point the finger at Bihar,much the same way Americans like to point the finger at the Deep South ("they" are the ones with problems...not like us). The fact is that everything that's found in Bihar is found elsewhere in India. I thoroughly enjoyed Bihar and its people and was surprised that most Indians putting-down Bihar had never been there; some even said "I would never go there!!"

Rumela said...

Yes i think all language always heats up discussions, and previous language diversity in India between the Hindi dominated North and southern languages such as Tamil fueled violent tensions, leading to predictions that the country would simply fall apart also. thank you for shearing your post.


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Anonymous said...

yes its true Indian visitor to make a film about an America they perceive, however derogatory or partially-representative that may be