Search every corner of the globe, I say, and you will not find a people more complex - and complexed - than Indians. Quite without irony, a nation, many of whose citizens had just been heaping abuse and lawsuits on Slumdog Millionaire for showing India in a bad light, and for using the intolerable word “dog” to describe those poor little slum-wallahs, is now in a state of euphoric bhangra over its winning eight statuettes conferred by an “academy” that regards a bunch of Scientologists (not to mention Mickey Rourke) as icons.
Maybe it's a result of 200 years of colonialism, but Indians are world champions at caring - really caring! - about what foreigners (more accurately, Westerners) think or say about them. They will live blithely with impressively foetid slums in their midst, thinking nothing of the juxtaposition of Victorian-era poverty and world-class, 21st-century living standards. But the national outrage stirred when a Western film-maker uses “slumdog” in the title of his film is an incandescent sight to behold.
That foreigner's neologism (“slumdog” doesn't exist in real parlance in India, although gali ka kutta, or alley-dog, comes close) is thought to heap more shame on the land than the slums themselves. And yet when that same film, with that same neo-imperialist title, is fêted by tuxedoed Americans at an awards ceremony watched across the globe, Indians burst with pride. Eight Oscars, yaah! Isn't that a record? Isn't A.R. Rahman the best composer in the world? Isn't Bollywood bloody wonderful? And aren't our slums a lesson in how to overcome adversity and cruelty?
Aren't our slum people stoical, resilient, self-reliant, courageous, fraternal, resolute and inventive? Aren't our slum people the world's best slum people?
Largely lost in this euphoria-come-lately is the sense that in the real Mumbai - big, bad, brutal, bolshy, bad-ass Bombay - Jamal Malik, the gali ka kutta of purest pedigree, wouldn't have come within five miles of a TV game show. Of course the film was fantasy, but the fantasy had an ugly core that Indians are blind to. Jamal would not have survived his torture in a real Mumbai police station.
There are no Oscars for “best adaptation of police practices”. But to end on a positive note: the film has had so much attention that it will shine a global light on everyday torture in Indian police stations.
Westerners are quite ignorant of such matters, and if they think ill of India now because of them, maybe the Indians, too, will start to care.
Tunku Varadarajan, a professor at New York University Stern Business School and opinions editor at Forbes.