Not Hot on "Slumdog"

BY DAN-CHYI CHUA
Mar 03, 2009
*Special to asia!

They are Bollywood's royalty and could have struck Hollywood stardom, too. Instead Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan both declined to appear in this year's biggest movie, “Slumdog Millionaire”. Did they miss out?

 

No one had any idea that “Slumdog Millionaire” was going to be the great underdog in Hollywood this year. Certainly not Warner Independent Pictures, which had doomed it to straight-to-DVD status until Fox Searchlight picked it up. Neither did the two top names of the world's biggest film industry.

Amitabh Bachchan refused to make a cameo as himself, while Shah Rukh Khan passed up on appearing as the host on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”, a role he had taken on the actual programme on Indian television, known in Hindi as “Kaun Banega Crorepati”. (Incidentally, King Khan – as he is known – was the second person to host the show after Amitabh Bachchan.)

And so a handful of lesser-known actors ended up gracing the Oscar red carpet instead.

Did the two kings of Bollywood miss out?

On the surface, it would appear so. They could have played musical couches on the late-night American talk shows, gained entry into Hollywood, and perhaps extended their repertoire to American cinema. But is that what they would have wanted?

Consider the following. The Mumbai-based film industry produces twice as many movies as Hollywood. Indians make 1.8 billion visits to the cinema a year, more than anyone else in the world. On top of that, there are 25 million ethnic Indians living outside the country. They, too, watch Bollywood films. And so do many other non-Indians and non-Hindi speakers.

Even in Pakistan, India’s arch-rival, Hindi movies have a large, devoted following. Bollywood has miraculously transcended the barriers of history, religion and nuclear warfare.

Hollywood may claim some 75% of the world's total film takings, but what clout do its stars really have?

Hollywood may claim some 75% of the world's total film takings, but what clout do its stars really have? They may take on a pet cause as a goodwill ambassador of some charitable organisation, or the United Nations. They may picket their supporters to back their favourite African-American presidential candidate, but apart from Ronald Reagan, can anyone really imagine a Hollywood star as a serious politician? If Arnold Schwarzenegger were not married to someone from the Kennedy clan, would the Terminator stand any chance of becoming governor of the largest American state?

In India, on the other hand, Amitabh Bachchan came close to becoming the president of the world's largest democracy, and Shah Rukh Khan has the backing of India's own political royal clan, the Gandhis.

These are two men who famously had a disagreement over their seating arrangements at an awards ceremony. They are not two men who would have happily let two Mumbai nobodies overshadow them in Hollywood.

At the end of the day, proud as Indians may be over the success of “Slumdog”, the show is a far cry from being their “Best Picture”. According to a poll by magazine India Today, eight out of 10 thought there was an Indian movie more deserving.

All this is reminiscent of the other runaway Asian success, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. Also made for a paltry US$15 million, like "Slumdog", the Chinese movie was nominated in almost every category possible in all the major award shows of 2000, and brought home the “Best Foreign Film” prize at both the Oscars and the BAFTAs across the Atlantic in the UK. Yet for most of the Chinese audience and those well-acquainted with Chinese cinema, it was little more than a well-made, brilliantly marketed, star-studded rehash of a genre they were weaned on. There were better kungfu movies.

And so Hollywood is only discovering something the rest of the world has known for a long time. Bollywood movies are, well, pretty darn good. And as for SRK and Big B, there’s nothing that they need to prove to Hollywood that India's 1.15 billion and the millions abroad do not already know.

 

Related Stories:

Amitabh for President?

The World's Most Beautiful Woman

Shah Rukh Khan: The Reincarnation of India's Pushtun Hero

Bachchan vs Gandhi

 

dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for theasiamag.com, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

Contact Dan-Chyi