'Slumdog Millionaire' generates controversy in India

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Slumdog Millionaire generates controversy in India
By the time this column appears in print, we will know who took home the prized Oscars this year.

One thing for sure, if Slumdog Millionaire wins top honors, veteran Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan and dozens of activists from Mumbai’s slums aren’t going to be so happy. Bachchan, in his blog in January, accused the film of portraying India as a "Third World, dirty, underbelly developing nation.”

And to make matters more uncomfortable, when Slumdog opened in India on Jan. 22, several hundred people rampaged through a cinema in Patna, capital of the eastern state of Bihar, and tore down posters advertising the film. They said the title was humiliating because they didn't like the use of the word "dog" and vowed to continue their protests until it was changed.

Social, political and religious activists in India often organize violent protests over films to try to win publicity for their cause. (And, to the distributor’s delight, this also creates free publicity for the movie.)

But screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, who devised the “Slumdog” title, said people shouldn’t read too much into the term. "I just made up the word. I liked the idea. I didn't mean to offend anyone," he declared.

Wedding Scores in Singapore
In Singapore, The Wedding Game, a romantic comedy about two superstars who decide to fake their marriage for personal gain, took top box-office honors two weekends in a row during the Chinese New Year period.

Directed and co-written by Thai filmmaker Ekachai Uekrongtham (Beautiful Boxer, The Coffin), the Mandarin-language film outperformed all other releases during the same period, including the Hollywood import Inkheart and the star-studded Hong Kong comedy All's Well Ends Well 2009. It is the director’s first comedy.



Pakistan Loves Indian Movies
Pakistani audiences have been flocking to see the blockbuster Indian thriller Ghajini, Bollywood's biggest-grossing movie ever. The action mystery, starring Indian actor Aamir Khan and based on the American film Memento, spins a complex tale of a man with amnesia who tattoos himself and takes Polaroid pictures to remember people and places.
"I loved this movie, not just because it was made in India, but because we don't produce such quality stuff here," Pakistani teenager Mohammed Salim was quoted after a screening at a Karachi cinema.

Just a year ago, the screening would not have been possible, as Pakistan had barred films from its rival neighbor for more than 40 years. Lifting the ban has helped revive Pakistan's suffering cinemas, luring film buffs away from their living rooms and into the movie houses.
But cinema operators now fear that the spike in cross-border tensions in the wake of the Mumbai attacks last November could doom their businesses, especially after Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram suggested business links could be suspended.

"The entire industry is looking at fresh tensions between India and Pakistan with great worry. We are certainly anxious to see how the situation develops," says Nadeem Mandviwala of Pakistan's Association of Film Exhibitors, quoted in The Pakistan Times.

"We want a set policy from the government so that we can keep our businesses running smoothly," Mandviwala continues. "Indian movies have got people back into Pakistani cinemas and have played a great role in saving cinema culture in the country."

Bollywood stars are wildly popular in Pakistan, where people watched their films on pirated videos and DVDs for decades until the ban was lifted. The country's press is filled with gossip about Indian film stars.

Director Hasan Zaidi, who organizes the annual international film festival in Karachi, says Pakistani films might suffer in the short run from the Indian competition but will eventually benefit thanks to renewed public interest.

"The Indian movies certainly affect ours now, but that phase will soon end, and then it will bring better prospects for us with money, skills and technology which we would use to make our films stronger," Zaidi predicts.

Jehanzeb Baig, a cinema operator in the eastern city of Lahore, agrees: "Indian movies will not obliterate the Pakistani film industry. They will encourage the production of good-quality movies here.”

Zaidi thinks the stiff competition from Bollywood will eventually force authorities to change censorship policy, allowing the production of domestic films with sensitive themes. Pakistan currently does not have a culture minister, as the post was left vacant following a rift last year in the former governing coalition.

Umer Sharif, a Pakistani comedian who is also well-known in India, says culture should remain separate from political concerns. "Cultural exchanges boost love and frustrate hate in hearts and they should not succumb to politics. India should also realize that Pakistan is sincere about wanting to maintain peace in the region," he maintains.

Mandviwala speculates that dozens of new theatres could be built in coming years, given the current upswing in the movie business. "Cinema is larger than life,” he says. “Very few people love America, but the whole nation loves Hollywood films. Likewise, all Pakistanis like Indian movies, so the matter should be decided based on what society wants.”

Abdul Ghafoor, who has worked for Karachi's oldest cinema, Nishat, for about 40 of his 65 years, says he hopes India and Pakistan will maintain the status quo for the sake of happy moviegoers. "It is heartening to see people are again entering the theatres along with their families,” he declares. “It is something which I even could not visualize in my dreams. Even women and children are coming to the cinema.”

Contact Asia-Pacific bureau chief Scott Rosenberg with your news items at (662) 982-4525, by fax at (662) 982-4526, or by e-mail at scott.rosenberg@gmail.com.