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Category: Art and Entertainment, International

Of Slumdog and Loveleen

| February 17, 2009

Loveleen Tandan

The author, a filmmaker herself, considers what the woman with the title of “co-director” contributed to the remarkable success of a leading contender for both best director and best picture at this year’s Oscars—and what the controversy means for women filmmakers.

The winter of our economic despair makes a perfect moment for a feel-good movie. And Slumdog Millionaire, itself rescued by chance from the straight-to-dvd line, gives us that—a fantasy spun out of the bastis, favelas, slums, like so many of our successful foreign fairytales. It’s an entertaining story about Jamal, an orphaned teenager from the slums of Mumbai who might just win 20 million rupees on India’s popular game show, “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.”  Its implausible blend of rags-to-riches-and-true-love, laced with brutal gangsters and suspicious police, needs only some musical numbers to become a Bollywood movie, traditionally considered a slumdog in the West despite its millionaire status in the world at large.

And from such an upside down framework, we have a hit film, shot entirely in India, a large part of its dialogue in Hindi, directed by Danny Boyle with a distinctive style and an eye for cultural authenticity. But whose eye? Casting director Loveleen Tandan is credited with inspired creative contributions that made the film genuinely Indian in feel, and earned her the title of co-director. Does it also earn her an Academy Award, if Boyle wins the Oscar? Does that tiny prefix “co” point to an equal partner to the director or a trusted general under the commander-in-chief? Did either Tandan or Boyle know that it would one day be spelled out to co-ntroversy?

Crossing borders of gender, class and culture has never been risky business in the past. Those whose borders were crossed simply went unheard. But times have changed. Although unfamiliar with India, Boyle captured the intensity and spirit of Mumbai. No doubt, it was through Tandan that he gained access to the depths of the culture. She shows a remarkable ability to grasp the essence of characters who certainly don’t reflect her own well-schooled background. Not all Indians can do that. And her out of the box insistence that young Jamal and his brother should speak Hindi reflects an uncanny similarity to her main character, who puts the truths of life as he knows it in the service of the show. Not all women would be so bold and certain of themselves. But Tandan herself has stated that she does not wish to be the symbol of a struggle for acknowledgment. She dismisses any effort to have herself considered for an Oscar. The first woman to win that nomination as best director, Lina Wertmuller, learned the ropes as assistant director to Fellini. Perhaps Tandan too sees her work with Danny Boyle as a chance to try her wings. Next time, she’ll fly on her own.

Well-wishers are leery.  There’s no guarantee of a next time. Of the more than one thousand movies released in 2007, only a handful were directed by women; those numbers shrank to a fistful last year. Since 1976, when Wertmuller made the headlines, the Berlin Wall has been torn down; apartheid in South Africa has been brought to an end; smallpox has been eradicated; and we in the United States have elected our first black president. But in over 30 years, only two other women have been nominated for a best director nod. It’s an award that brings career recognition. It makes the next movie possible, and Tandan has announced that she wants to direct her own film soon. Can a talented co-director become a director, without an Oscar nomination, if not a win, in hand?

For a director who’s a woman, the chance to make a film means a lot. Thinking beyond gender is unusual. Although the unthinkable can happen, there are the skeptics and the naysayers who have yet to recognize the value of a diversity of perspective. Myopia blurs their vision and keeps them from realizing that everyone benefits from another point of view. Her-stories will vary from director to director, in subject, tone and style, and both our sons and daughters gain from that richer, broader, more inclusive spectrum of movies. If that potential remains unmined, our entire culture lags behind. We leave our children as slumdogs, unable to connect to the experiences that would answer all the questions, the game show winnings (and maybe even true love) beyond their grasp.

Today, a woman in India raises concern in the United States about the under-representation of women directors.  Did she give of herself too generously to the project? Did she fail to grab for the brass ring when opportunity struck?  An Englishman gave her the title of co-director and sparked debate about whether that indicates recognition or condescension. People are often reluctant participants in issues they didn’t create. The questions muddy matters of a delicate balance. They can shatter the spontaneity of a rare moment. Yet, they often push us forward by highlighting the need for change. So, women directors, the train waits at the station. Take a sip of your chai.  Mint chutney with your hot samosa? We may hold the tickets in our hands. But we’re not there yet. The journey is just beginning.