At a Slumdog afternoon in China…‘is this real?’

“India is near…Nepal?’’

The question came from Stuart, a Chinese final-year business management student whose English name was John until he watched the Hollywood movie about an animated white mouse called Stuart Little.

“But I used to think that Mumbai must be just like Beijing,’’ said wide-eyed Susie, a final-year English major sitting on the edge of my couch.

Susie and Stuart, who watched the Oscar awards twice, had taken a break from the despair of job-hunting to ride the subway to my apartment, excited to watch the movie the world raves about — the movie that has not yet reached Chinese theatres.

Like any other young Chinese, the duo rarely has India on their mind. It is a faraway nation that loves to dance rather than a competitor along one of the world’s longest disputed borders with their own country.

They have visited the US but not India, and they rarely find news about India in the local media. Many Chinese have not heard about the November terror attacks in Mumbai, and they don’t know the meaning of a slum.

Everybody’s parents have watched Raj Kapoor’s Aawara but the young Chinese experience Bollywood only if a movie shows on China Central Television, where the impatient censors tend to snip the songs to keep it short.

Imagine what happened to Devdas.

Susie said she had watched a Bollywood movie. “It was about kings and queens, a forest and palaces,’’ she said animatedly. “It starred the most famous man in India, whose picture we saw in a shop that day,’’ she added helpfully, hoping I could remember the name of the epic that so impressed her.

Shah Rukh Khan in Asoka.

The morning after the Oscars were awarded, I had walked into the grocery store in my apartment tower in Beijing, sure that I would find the Slumdog Millionaire DVD (for 10 yuan or Rs 70) on a rack opposite the ice-cream counter and beside the toilet rolls.

I found it on the third row that day, after weeks of waiting. The DVD had actually landed much earlier in a rundown market for designer knock-offs, which thrives next to a new glass mall for genuine designer goods. But the crowds and winter chill had put me off going there.

As I pressed Play, Susie asked if the girl on the DVD cover was the phone-a-friend. Game shows are popular on Chinese television, and the winner wins a wish for every successful round.

“Does Mumbai really look like this?’’ asked Stuart. As the policemen chased the slum kids, he moved with my bowl of nachos from couch to carpet to sit cross-legged too close to the television.

Stuart later said he would like to visit Mumbai, but not the slums. (An Indian businessman in Beijing once told me that Mumbai drivers who pick up important Chinese clients at the Santacruz airport are instructed to try their best to avoid driving past slums).

“I used to think that a slum must be just like a poor Chinese village,’’ said a visibly shocked Susie. “And I used to think that Mumbai city must be like Beijing.’’ The average Chinese village is an idyllic and safe park compared to Dharavi.

They were befuddled by the riot scene and Stuart tended to use the polite word ‘accident’ instead of riot. After the movie, the discussion ended up in good-humoured banter with Susie, from the majority Han Chinese community, badgering Stuart, a minority Manchu, for the privilege that he would be allowed to have two children if he married a minority girl.

While Stuart and I had reflexively looked away during the child blinding scene, Susie had no idea of what to expect and watched on. Both have not seen child beggars during the last five years in Beijing.

“But how come the government allows the bad stuff to be shown?’’ she asked. “If this was China, the movie would have never gone to the Oscars!’’ Stuart started waving his scissor-hands in the air, pretending to cut, cut, cut.

They were rivetted through the movie and left with a lasting impression that the truth was not sugarcoated. Susie also wondered whether the Jamaal-Latika love story could ever happen in real life.

The scenes of poverty did not put them off or inspire touristy thrills. Stuart, who had received a multiple-entry US visa that week, stopped smiling when he put it this way: My American friends tell me, America is not heaven.’’

Post-Oscars, the China Film Group Corporation announced that China, which imports only about 20 Hollywood films per year, would bring Slumdog Millionaire to Chinese theatres by March-end or April.

In the words of Weng Li, the Group’s spokesman quoted in government-run media reports, the movie will be imported because: Its artistic value has already been proven by the Oscars. Its theme is positive, healthy and inspirational’’. The last movie I watched at a Chinese cinema was Quantum of Solace.

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