After its sweeping win at the Oscars last Sunday, Slumdog Millionaire seems like the movie everyone wants, and perhaps needs. It has all the ingredients of escapist fare from the Great Depression -- a populist hero who overcomes all odds to get the girl and the money. There's an added element of self-congratulation for the West: by seeing this movie you can see India without getting your hands dirty or offending your nose, and cheer it on. Cinderella didn't walk through tenements and sectarian violence to reach her prince. But in this fairy tale, a concession must be made to modern realities. Dev Patel is symbolic of India here and now, fulfilling its wildest economic aspirations while being conscious of the darkest aspects of social decay and despair.

If we follow the metaphor to its logical conclusion, India will get the money and the girl by rising above its slums. Perhaps that's why Slumdog has created an uneasy reaction in Mumbai and the rest of India. Rising above isn't the same as solving. Many well-born educated Indians have looked westward for a long time, which is easier than looking inward. They know more about the streets of London and New York than the teeming lanes of the ghettos in their own city. This is true, of course, among rich elites everywhere, not just in south Asia. Watching Dev triumphantly cross the social line is triumphant, but it reminds you that there is a line. (Barack Obama crossed the racial line in triumph, also, but notice how much heat his Attorney General, Eric Holder, took when he suggested in less than polite terms that America needs to be more honest and courageous about the whole problem of race.)

Like fairy tales, symbols can pacify deep anxieties. India dreams of being a millionaire, but it lives with the anxiety that it's really a slumdog. Or that the slumdogs will one day rise up against the millionaires. You can read the tea leaves any way you like. Another uncertainty attends the film. Having been made on a shoestring, Slumdog managed to outgross any number of big-budget Hollywood films. Last week it ranked fifth in U.S. box office while its nearest Oscar rival, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, was no longer in the top ten. Brad Pitt, being a megastar, has pulled his film to $122 million, compared to Slumdog's $98 million, but is that really competitive? Ten movies on the scale of Slumdog can be made for the cost of one blockbuster that has yet to pay back its cost.

The whole movie industry is watching closely, and the developing world is watching back even more closely. After two decades of action flicks with move-your-lips scripts that were primitive enough to appeal to Asian males, here is Asia -- via the UK, admittedly -- sending back something sophisticated, poignant, and universal. It's like the ultimate retort to colonialism: the coolie and the wallah have more smarts than the sahib. Indians feel uneasy about that, too. Will the sahib turn his back and shut them out? Do south Asians have enough self-respect and stature in the world to at last forget that the sahib ever existed?

We may know the answers in the near future. Bollywood didn't conceive Slumdog. It still purveys mindless entertainment, for the most part, interspersed with small independent films that challenge the West for thoughtfulness and freshness. It's not for lack of talent that India didn't produce Slumdog. But questions of vision and courage do arise. Past history and ingrained inhibitions make it hard for Indian artists in any field to be as frank and true to life as they should be. They have yet to seize freedom. The country has yet to shake off its humbling self-image, although that is occurring faster every day.

If Slumdog is a viable symbol, the future it points to is just being born. An out-of-the-way picture can dare to be universal, which means that India may dare to be universal one day. The dispossessed people of Asia are suddenly aware that they have a place at the table where previously only the rich dined. Both developments are encouraging. Meanwhile, one can marvel at the bald fact that a Bollywood-style anthem, "Jai Ho," won the Oscar for Best Song, while Bruce Springsteen wasn't even nominated. The first Academy Awards of the recession turned out to be, as one headline proclaimed, the first outsourced Oscars of all time.

Publilshed in the Times of India

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