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In my cultural world, two major events defined the beginning of the year 2009, the Obama inaugural and the movie, Slumdog Millionaire.
Both events are meaningfully connected in the popular culture and possibly in the history of the nation. There is a synergy between the improbable Obama win and the Hollywood/Bollywood rags to riches caper that went on to win the best picture of the year.
Both stories are about outsiders who come from the fringes of society yet manage to beat out all of the odds. Obama as a half-Kenyan American, from Hawaii via Indonesia and Chicago, has taken on the mantle of the first African American president and the first global president of the United States.
The key protagonist in Slumdog Millionaire is a young man named Jamal, an orphan Muslim minority from one of the poorest slums in Mumbai, India. He not only manages to get on the popular game show, "Who wants to be a Millionaire," but to the dismay of the game show host and the local police authorities, is able to answer all of the questions correctly to take home the coveted prize.
Both narratives are also about the power of globalization. Obama's win represents the triumph of the American brand of multiculturalism at home and abroad, won on the backs of the hard-fought victories of the civil rights movement and the emerging post-racial world.
Slumdog Millionaire represents the flush of new capital pouring into the big metro areas like Mumbai, extolling the virtues of American greed and the free market economy, over and above the two thousand years old Hindu-work-ethic encapsulated in the Bhagavad Gita which states that one should perform one's duties (dharma) as selfless action (karma) and not be motivated by the fruits of one's labor or profits.
To the disappointment of many educated and diaspora Indians who are part and parcel of the emerging "incredible India," it is clear that old stereotypes are hard to change. In the movie, India continues to be depicted as "a vast public latrine," as V. S. Naipaul said in "An Area of Darkness" almost fifty years ago, but at least now it's part of the back office of the American corporations and other multinational firms.
Finally, both Obama and Slumdog represent a wave of populism that surfaces in hard economic times. Notwithstanding the hard-boiled filmmaking of Danny Boyle, the English/Irish director well known for making tough films about the downtrodden, the story of the orphan slum dwellers touches American hearts because the global economy has been in an abysmal dump. Thus, a brutal yet beautiful film makes us realize how blessed we really are as Americans and how good we really have it.
Observing the populist elation at the Obama victory, Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times, "We'll soon remember that the country is in a deep ditch, and that we turned to the black guy not only because we hoped he would lift us up but because he looked like the strongest leader to dig us out."
Populism can easily turn into rage against its chosen heroes. The actors from Slumdog learned this when they returned home from the Oscars to be greeted by angry mobs of slum dwellers who were rightly upset at being depicted as a colony of sub-human species. Recently, the Obama dawg millionaires have not been spared the populist outrage either at the perceived lack of connection with the American people over the bank bailouts and AIG bonuses.
The enduring lesson here is that people prefer brutally honest narratives. Over the years, several Bollywood movies have been nominated, but the only Indian narrative that captured the American imagination in large enough numbers and went on to sweep the Oscars was Gandhi; this movie too was directed and produced by a British filmmaker, almost a generation ago. We may not see another movie like Slumdog for a while. Certainly, a movie like Gandhi is even harder to imagine, which makes the Obama narrative even more compelling.
Note: An edited version of this article appeared previously in the monthly ethnic magazine, Little India.