- The Washington Times - Friday, January 30, 2009

Oscar and audience favorite “Slumdog Millionaire” opened strong at the Indian box office this week, taking in 135 million rupees (roughly $2.8 million) on its opening weekend. This despite the fact that bootleg copies have been available in cities on DVD since November, according to the Economic Times, which reported that Vijay Singh, chief executive of the film’s distribution company, Fox Star Studios India, was “delighted” with the numbers.

Yet all was not well in India for the little movie that could. Some of the locals have reacted with indignation to its portrayal of poverty in India’s largest slum and even to the title. According to Reuters news agency, one slum dweller has filed suit against “Slumdog” director Danny Boyle and even has begun naming actual dogs in the slum after Mr. Boyle and the movie’s actors.

What should Hollywood make of the mixed reaction?

“I’ve got a lot of friends in Bollywood,” says Indian-American actress and producer Namrata Singh Gujral. Those friends “write to me and say, ‘Oh …, I can’t believe that it’s winning all these awards. Look at the parts of India that they show; what about all the nice parts of India?’”

Concerns about the film’s portrayal of India are largely a product of middle-class anxieties about the nation’s recent economic progress and its status on the international stage.

“You can’t deny that there are parts of India that are still poor or could use some help,” says Miss Gujral, “but by and large, the Indians in India who are doing well - which is the majority of the population that has the money to go buy tickets and watch movies - they don’t want to see that India.”

The Indian film industry is happy to indulge this audience preference for escape. “If you look at Bollywood pictures and you see an Indian village, it’s all glitzy and gorgeous, whereas that’s not really the truth,” Miss Gujral says.

Saying that “it’s commendable what Danny Boyle has done,” she cautions that he shouldn’t get too worried about the Indians threatening to storm theaters showing his movie.

“There is no way in the world that you can look at everything, from the title of your picture, to everything that goes into it, and predict what somebody’s going to be sensitive to,” she says. “You just can’t.”

Miss Gujral recalls that when she was making her own film “Americanizing Shelley,” she was surprised by the criticism her father sent her way for showing a Sikh turban improperly tied on the big screen.

“People are sensitive to different things,” she says.

Sonny Bunch

The AFI Silver, the Silver Spring movie palace, today opens a series called “The Curious Case of David Fincher.” It’s a fitting title, and not just because the American director’s latest film is called “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Mr. Fincher’s career seems instructive on the perils of Hollywood success for the auteur.

Mr. Fincher first came to our attention with “Alien 3” (1992) after directing music videos for such people as Madonna. He might have started with a franchise film, but he quickly proved himself utterly original with his next three films, the twisty psychological thrillers “Se7en” (1995), “The Game” (1997) and “Fight Club” (1999). The latter, a funny and strangely moving critique of consumerism starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, is one of the best films of the ‘90s.

After proving himself as one of our most creative filmmakers, though, Mr. Fincher has released a trio of well-made but disappointingly thin films. His budgets have gotten bigger, but his ambition to move us seems to have gotten smaller.

“Panic Room” will not be screened at AFI, but “Zodiac,” Mr. Fincher’s overly long but slickly produced look at the infamous serial killer, will. “Button” might be up for a best-picture Oscar next month, and there’s no denying its technical achievement, but for emotional depth, check out the other Fincher films on offer at AFI. For a schedule, visit afi.com/silver.

Kelly Jane Torrance

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