Crossing borders, breaking down barriers

Indian diplomat arrested

The recent arrest of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade has served as a reminder that even the closest ties between the United States and India can be broken because of cross-cultural differences, miscues, and miscommunication. The #DevyaniHumiliated Twitter hashtag tells a story of Indian honor assaulted and humiliation endured. Perceptions of the handling of the case on both sides of a vast cultural ocean ride the waves of deep beliefs about how women should be treated here and abroad. The US and India eventually came to terms over Ms. Khobragade’s treatment, but the reconciliation was complicated by the rhetorical terms in which their respective positions were articulated. The US position spoke of justice and equality, while the Indian position spoke of honor and national pride. All are beautiful ideals, but these ideals made a practical resolution difficult. One commentator argued the diplomatic row has permanently damaged bilateral US-India relations, noting that the “ugly American” has returned.

“Until the US displays appropriate deference to the sensitivities, pride, and honor of other peoples and cultures, it will continue to be resented around the world.”

Indian culture satirized

A couple of weeks before this story broke, Buzzfeed writer Rega Jha, an NRI living in NYC, answered “26 Questions People From India Are Sick Of Answering.” A satirical look at common American misconceptions about India, the post raises important questions about racism, religion, and cross-cultural understanding. Many misconceptions about India come from movies and film. Just as many people in the US (and elsewhere) think all Texans are Chuck Norris in Walker Texas Ranger and JR Ewing in Dallas, many Americans base their understanding of Indian culture on Jamal from Slumdog Millionaire and Raj from the Big Bang Theory. (Btw, both roles are portrayed by British, not Indian, actors.)

As so many of my readers are American, I want to answer some of Ms. Jha’s questions seriously rather than satirically. Over the next year, I will feature 12 of the 26 questions posed in the Buzzfeed article. Every month, I will start with the question, Ms. Jha’s answer, the featured GIF, and the Magnolia2Mumbai answer. Stay tuned each month for the next question. As a Mumbai-based blogger, I want to answer the Mumbai-based question first, but I want you to help decide about the remaining 11 questions. If you have a particular question you would like me to answer, comment on this blog post or take this brief quiz.


American question answered

“It’s basically just like Slumdog Millionaire, right?”

GIF from question 26 about Slumdog Millionaire

GIF from question 26 about Slumdog Millionaire

Rega Jha answer


Magnolia2Mumbai answer

If you were to ask me if “it’s basically just like Slumdog,” I would respond, “no” and roll my eyes, as even expats are sick of that question. The film tells a certain truth, but much of that truth is not my truth.

I had seen Slumdog when it first appeared in theaters in 2009/2010. This past week, I watched the movie for the first time since moving to Mumbai. The film does not represent my Mumbai. I have visited slums and have seen the poverty. Yet, I also see the glistening malls and five-star hotels that share equal space with the slums to comprise the Maximum City. I see the call center workers making their way home at 10 pm as we take the three krazy kuttas on their nightly constitutional. I see parents and maids waiting for children to return from school. I see the 6-am running club when I go to my yoga class. I see the first-class dining mix with the first-class street food. That’s my Mumbai. Not this highly stylized, slick fantasy where the boy always gets the girl. How quintessentially Bollywood.

Slumdog Millionaire is based on the book Q&A by Vikas Swarup. The movie tells the story of Jamal, a chaiwallah (tea seller) from the slums of Mumbai, who competes on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Despite his low social status and lack of formal education, Jamal walks away with the top prize based on his talent and knowledge.

Winner of eight Academy Awards, the film was heavily criticized in India for its negative portrayal of Mumbai slums as third-world cesspools of sexual exploitation, religious intolerance, and criminal behavior. Sure, those issues exist in the slums, but they certainly don’t represent the complexity of life for India’s poorest citizens. If you want a balanced view of the experience, read Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers; don’t watch a movie. Most slum dwellers are honest, hardworking people. Do villains exist? Sure. But, so do heroes like Jamal. Like many expats, I have visited Dharavi, the slum in which Slumdog is set. I even have a photo similar to a shot from the movie of the pipeline leading to BKC.

Dharavi marshlands

These marshlands are opposite the Dharavi slum. The pipes bring water to the slum twice a day. In the distance is Bandra Kurla Complex, where many businesses have offices.

While I found the conditions deplorable, I marveled at the industrious economic output (estimated around USD 1 billion annually). The people of Dharavi make their livings as best they can: by working hard primarily sorting plastic or sewing jeans not by exploiting orphan children.

Chaiwallahs like Jamal are prominent Mumbai fixtures. They stand on street corners selling their potent mix of tea, sugar, milk, and spices. In an office environment, like the one featured in the film, the chaiwallahs prepare tea for the office staff whenever required. That’s their sole task, and they take great pride in it. For many, that office job confers status. For, it’s better to be a chaiwallah than to be an elevator operator or common laborer. Jamal takes great pride in his office work, only to be insulted by the Millionaire host because he is merely a chaiwallah, the lowest rung on the office staff ladder.  His position raises doubt that he could possibly win the top prize. Jamal’s mere presence on the show challenges cultural social norms that say that a chaiwallah is not smart enough.

Recently, Narendra Modi (NaMo), the BJP’s PM candidate, invited 10,000 chaiwallahs to attend his political rally in Mumbai. Like Slumdog’s hero, Modi’s origins as a chaiwallah make his political success a romantic story of talent overcoming social status. The connection between Jamal and NaMo was obvious to Chetan Bhagat, who took an immense amount of ribbing for this tweet:


Bhagat is right. The world, and Americans especially, loved that story. Why? Because the hero overcomes his humble origins through hard work, knowledge, and a little luck. It’s the American dream personified in an Indian protagonist. Americans relate to Jamal. As different from us as he is, Jamal is, nevertheless, still the same somehow. That’s why we ask the inane “Slumdog” question. We are trying to place him within a context that makes sense to us, as many things about India are so foreign.

Let’s look at a few of the most memorable moments from the film.

Do people defecate outside?


In an early scene, Jamal jumps through a hole in an outhouse into a huge pile of human excrement to get the autograph of his hero, Amitabh Bachchan. According to Poo2Loo, a UNICEF social media initiative, 60% of Indians defecate outside. While the number is lower in urban areas like Mumbai, consistent access to toilet facilities is problematic. So much so that one Congress-party politician proudly placed a billboard over a toilet that she had helped fund. The irony of a politician associating herself with human excrement was not lost on Ketan Bhagat and his Facebook fans.

But, the filthy toilet scene must be placed in cinematic context. Danny Boyle famously had Ewan McGregor dive into the “filthiest toilet in Scotland” in the opening scene of Trainspotting. Perhaps, Boyle has a few potty-training issues he might need to resolve. Let’s not judge an entire culture by Boyle’s portrayal.

Do I defecate outside? Of course not. Although there was that one time in Himachal Pradesh….

But, that’s a whole other blog post.

Is Amitabh Bachchan (Big B) the most famous man in India?

Well, sort of. It depends on how we are measuring famous. Amitabh Bachchan (or Big B as he is popularly known) is the reason Jamal jumps into the cesspool at the beginning of the film. Proclaimed by Jamal as the “most famous man in India,” Big B might be familiar to American audiences for his part in The Great Gatsby. Interestingly, although he is portrayed in the movie, Bachchan does not appear as himself. The hand you see in the movie returning Jamal’s autographed photo is played by another actor, Feroz Abbas Khan. Bachchan was famously critical of Slumdog for its portrayal of India “as [a] third-world, dirty, underbelly developing nation.”

If we look at Twitter followers, then, yes, according to some lists, Big B is the most famous. But, if you asked me who the most famous Indian is, I would say Sachin Tendulkar. The country literally stopped to watch Sachin retire. I doubt they would do the same for Big B. Or maybe they would. If we are talking about the sheer volume of hoardings (billboards) on which a person’s face is plastered, then Big B might well win the contest as Sachin is less prolific in his endorsements.

In a recent blog post, Bachchan posted this brilliant image. In a single frame, he is in three ads!

Amitabh Bachchan pictured in ICICI, Binani, and Kalyan ads on a Mumbai street.

Amitabh Bachchan pictured in ICICI, Binani, and Kalyan ads on a Mumbai street.



Are young girls really sold into sexual slavery in India?

Sadly, yes. When Jamal meets Latika after many years, he sees her in traditional dress dancing for men. We are to understand that this dancing leads to sex. When Jamal meets her again later in the film, the subtext indicates that she is the kept girlfriend of a powerful gangster. According to a study by a consortium of NGOs, 3 million women in India are enslaved in the commercial sex trade. More than 60% of them are adolescent girls like Latika, and more than 25% of those women are in Maharashtra, the state in which Mumbai is located. To Americans, whose population is 300 million, 3 million women sounds like a huge number. But, in India, that number represents a mere 2.4% of the female population here. As horrific as the 3 million number is, clearly, the vast majority of Indian women are not sold into slavery. For the small percentage of women who are, however, the experience is brutal.  The portrayal of Latika’s experience would seem almost mild in comparison to the horrors that commercial sex workers must endure.

What’s “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” like in India?

The Millionaire scenes might be the most accurate. In India, the show is hosted by Amitabh Bachchan, not the fictionalized Prem Kumar portrayed by Anil Kapoor. In Hindi, the show is called Kaun Banega Crorepati. Crorepati is the Hindi word for millionaire. Hence, the top prize started at 1 crore and is now up to 7 crore rupees. The show is presented in Hindi and English simultaneously. When I was studying Hindi, I watched the show to build my vocabulary.

While being a millionaire in the US is an elusive prize, in India, crorepati represent an even smaller percentage of the overall population. Almost 9 million people in the US qualify as millionaires. Given the size of India’s population compared to the US, four times the population should mean four times the millionaires with 36 million millionaires, right? Wrong. Not even close. The actual number is nowhere near that high with just over 47,000 people in India qualifying as crorepati. Forget about the 1%, people. In India, millionaires represent just 0.00004% of the population.

On an editorial note, you can tell the movie was produced in the US. The commas in the prize amounts are wrong according to Indian comma standards. Instead of every three places, the commas shift to every second place at the hundred thousand mark. So, in India, this numeral representation:


should read:

1,00,000 (That’s one lakh.)

Yes, that’s right. I even edit movies. Keep an eye out for the error on the top prize.

Do people spontaneously burst into choreographed dance numbers in train stations?

Flash mobs aside, of course not. Indians love to dance, and some have argued that a movie without dancing will not draw crowds in India. People dance at weddings; they dance at immersions; they dance in clubs; but, they don’t spontaneously dance for no reason. The final scene, where Jamal and Latika meet in VT, represents a typical Bollywood dance number. But, such dancing creates an artificial lens through which the director creates our cinematic world. Yes, I have seen Salman Khan burst into the song in the middle of a perfectly good action sequence in Ek Tha Tiger, but such artifice is meant to represent the escapism of Bollywood films—not the reality of life in India.

Final answer?

So, what’s your final answer? Is it basically like Slumdog? Let me know. Post a comment.

5 thoughts on “Crossing borders, breaking down barriers

  1. It has been interesting to follow your changing perception of India over time. Having been there for three weeks, a few things stand out for me. This is a small example: the surroundings of Brian’s big boss’s house, the excitement of a hired driver upon finding $5 (or did he?), the comparison of urban vs. rural poverty and treatment of women, the gentleness of Jude, your driver, you have a dog walker and separation of women and men in security checks. Oh, and the necessity to go to a fancy hotel for acceptable toilets. My memory is mostly in the smells of India. Oh, I don’t get these questions but remember, Americans are a-holes to everyone. Look at how we treated Natives of our own country. I dare not say Native Americans, that seems an insult unto itself.
    I would so love to return to India, yes I would.


    • I was there for a mere 2 weeks, and when people ask me what I remember most about it, I say the colors, the filth, the crowds, the traffic, the security checks everywhere, and the difference between the “haves” and the “have nots”. I, too, would love to go back.


  2. @ Deb. As usual, I don’t see the change as much as others do. I know when I first arrived it was all shock and awe. Now that I have settled in, I’m not surprised so easily. I still believe it’s essential to portray India in a positive light, but I don’t shy away from less attractive qualities either. Toilets are actually on my list of upcoming topics. The smells are fascinating. I have one NRI friend who has written of the smells in a fond way.
    @Renee I’m glad you liked the post. The traffic is difficult to imagine. I explain it like this:
    Imagine NY and LA traffic together in one place. Now, remove the lanes and make stopping at red lights optional. That’s Mumbai.


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