09/24/2010 12:15 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bollywood's Slumdog Cake

A shorter version of this article appeared in The Guardian newspaper.

As the fate of the Commonwealth Games hangs in balance, India's risible Bollywood elite are still probably hung over from a 60th birthday bash at a lounge in Western Bombay's Juhu area on Saturday night, where most of them live, anyway.

The birthday girl in question: Shabana Azmi is almost as old as independent India, being born just three years after the British Raj ended. For the last two-decades atleast she has paraded herself as a prominent social activist. She comes from a prominent Muslim family, her father was a well-known poet and her husband Javed Akhtar who wrote India's seminal Bollywood film Sholay is Bollywood's best-known lyricist and currently a member of the Upper House of Parliament, which his wife was also a member of.

In 1996, when she was an MP-it was a controversial period when her film Fire in which she portrayed a middle-class Delhi housewife having a sexual relationship with her sister-in-law, was released. The Hindu right wing in the country was up in arms. Her character was called Sita (also a leading Hindu goddess) and to them a Muslim woman playing a lesbian woman called Sita, was well a bit too much to digest.

Bollywood's blog are agog with the celebrities and "twilebrities" that were present including the ever-tweeting biggest star in Bollywood, Amitabh Bachchan, eight years Ms. Azmi's senior who sent out a series of tweets while at this birthday bash. Here they are, in order. The last one reveals the reason for this piece.

Tweet 1 At Shabana Azmi's 60th ... such joy to meet up with old friends and colleague ... and listening to blaring 60's - 70's music ..
Tweet 2 Javed Saheb at his humorous best .. in splits with his one liners ! Shatru, Vinod and I meeting after ages .. such nostalgia ..!!
Tweet 3-The theme for the party was 'wear a head gear' .. I mustered a Manali cap .. many did not comply .. Javed and Shabana spiked hair haha
Tweet 4 -Javed Saheb's gift to Shabana - a cake designed like a slum !! Touche !!

A friend disgusted by this cake sent me a picture and I had to write about it (since no one in India's mostly puerile entertainment media seemed to be doing it.) For the record, Ms. Azmi is both a brave actress and a social activist. But this cake, reveals a lack of judgment and leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

The half-eaten cake, which all media reports indicate was her husband's idea at self deprecating humor, is a baked replica of what a slum looks like to India's large middle class and its rather small elite, some of whom were present at the party. A river does seem to run through it in blue icing. A careful look reveals it is a "nallah" or a sewage filled open drain, which is often a trademark of any neighborhood where India's urban poor build their makeshift homes and which then starts being called a "slum".

A quick Google search on "Shabana 60th Birthday" reveals all manner of blogs and articles, including Indian's venerable Times of India newspaper which does mention the cake, but decides to not comment on whether it is appropriate or not.

Most of the commentary in India's hyperactive blogosphere centers around Bachchan also known as the Big B in the media; almost running into Rekha, a prominent former co-star who it is widely believed he had a long affair with. I grew up with stories of their shenanigans in the Bollywood magazines I used to devour. She apparently went up to his wife, his son and daughter in-law (both prominent actors-Stardom like politics in India, is dynastic).

One gossipy blog says:

But very few know that "Jadoo" (as Shabana calls Javed fondly) has the best sense of humor in the industry. Since Shabana works closely for the upliftment of slums, her cake was just that! Javed Akhtar had Shabana's birthday cake designed as a slum: complete with huts, gutters and the muck. He even called it 'Shabana Nagar, Galli No. 60'! Yes, because his wife Shabana was turning 60 years old.

I grew up in a very middle class family in a small town in India and came to the "free world" a decade ago. I certainly did not spend much time in the slums. I recently spent the whole summer in India, my first in a decade of living in America. To me, the contrasts between the super-rich, the world's largest middle class and the poor have never been greater. Most of the Bollywood stars who drove up to Ms. Azmi's birthday celebration had no reason to pass Dharavi, Asia's largest slum (not too far from their homes in suburban Bombay) with more than a million residents. But even in elite Juhu, parts of which get flooded like the rest of Bombay (and all of Dharavi) it is possible to see Bombay's abject poverty from the tinted glass of a chauffer driven and air-conditioned car.

The dissonance of my two months in Indian, returning as a non-resident Indian, and thus supposedly cash-strapped mirrored the dissonance of practically every other life in the world's largest democracy. While there I also realized, once again, that a third of the world's poor still live in India because the elite English language media was outraged by new reports (some of the Hindi media did mention it in passing). A study by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative using a Multi-dimensional Poverty Index (MPI) found that there were 421 million poor living under the MPI in eight north India states of Bihar, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. This number is higher than the 410 million poor living in the 26 poorest African nations.

As I look at the picture of Shabana Azmi's sixtieth birthday cake, I wonder about her husband's sense of humour. I wonder if the irony was lost on most of the Bollywood elite, who dutifully showed up and no-doubt had big chunks from the makeshift huts and the open sewage drains. I wonder if they are aware of India's latest poverty statistics. I am sure the cake like the rest of the hors d' oeuvres on offer were delicious. I wonder if it induced indigestion. The cake looks like a bulldozer has passed through it. Bulldozers have been known to frequently pass through slums in Bombay and Delhi, most recently in Delhi as it gets its much-needed (and mostly unsuccessful) face-lift for the Commonwealth Games -- which are now a national shame.

The birthday revelers have left some of the huts standing however and the sewage filled nallah seems to be mostly intact. A thoughtfully supplied clothesline full of washing can also be seen in the picture. I wonder if the cake was a conversation starter? A conversation perhaps, that went like this?

Amitabh: Rekha, would you like a hut or the clothesline?
Rekha: Amitabh ji, I think a piece of the nallah would be more delicious!

Some of these very same elites-had been up in arms against what many activists called the "poverty porn" of Danny Boyle's overly celebrated Slumdog Millionaire. The Big B wrote famously on his blog: Slumdog Millionaire projects India as [a] third-world, dirty, underbelly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky underbelly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations."

Now the Big B, I am sure had a big bite of that cake and so did a rather crowded, designer clothed roomful of stars and starlets.

The question is: Is eating Shabana Azmi's Slumdog Cake while dancing to Bollywood music (as pointed out by the tweeting Bachchan) at a rather posh and expensive party not a tasteless representation of "poverty-porn" yet again?

Atleast Slumdog Millionaire was a good film, with artistic integrity.

Shabana Azmi, the crusading activist, sound-bite savvy actress who seems to have an opinion on mostly everything that ails contemporary India should think better than serve up a Slumdog Cake at her lavish birthday bash for a few hundred of her Bollywood BFF's.