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A Hollow Message of Social Justice

Slumdog Millionaire’s Dehumanizing View of India’s Poor

by MITU SENGUPTA

Slumdog Millionaire, one of the most celebrated films of recent times, tells the rags-to-rajah story of a love-struck boy, Jamal, who, with a little help from “destiny,” triumphs over his wretched beginnings in Mumbai’s squalid slums.  Riding on a wave of rave reviews, Slumdog is now poised to win Hollywood’s highest tribute, the Academy Award for Best Picture.  This honour could add some US$100 million to Slumdog’s box-office revenues, as Oscar wins usually do.  But it will also enhance the film’s already-robust reputation as an authentic representation of the lives of India’s urban poor.  So far, most of the awards collected by the film have been accepted in the name of “the children,” suggesting that its own cast is promoting it not as an entertaining, cinematically spectacular work of fiction, which it is, but as a powerful tool of advocacy.  Nothing could be more worrying, as Slumdog, despite all hype to the contrary, delivers a disempowering narrative about the poor that renders hollow its apparent message of social justice.  

Many Indians are angered by Slumdog because it tarnishes their country’s image as a rising economic power and beacon of democracy.  While understandable, this is not defensible.  Though at times embarrassingly contrived, most of the film’s heartrending scenarios reflect a sad, but well-documented reality.  Torture is not unheard of among the police, though none is surely dim enough to target an articulate man who is also a rising media phenomenon.  Beggar-makers do round-up abandoned children and mutilate them to make them more sympathetic, though such a child will unlikely ever chance upon a $100 bill, much less be capable of identifying it by touch alone.

If anything, Boyle’s magical tale, with its unconvincing one-dimensional characters and absurd plot devices, understates the depth of suffering among India’s poor.  It is impossible, for example, that Jamal would emerge from his ravaged life with a dewy complexion and upper-class accent.  The real problem with Slumdog, however, is not its shallow portrayal of poverty, but its minimizing of the capabilities and even basic humanity of those it claims to speak for.  

It is no secret that Slumdog is meant to reflect life in Dharavi, the vast sprawl of slums at the heart of Mumbai.  The film depicts Dharavi as a feral wasteland, with little evidence of order, community or compassion.  Other than the children, the no-one is even remotely well-intentioned.  Hustlers and petty warlords run amok, and even Jamal’s schoolteacher is inexplicably callous.  This is a place of sheer evil and decay. 

But nothing is further from the truth.  Dharavi teems with dynamism, and is a hub of small-scale industries, whose estimated annual turnover is between US$50 to $100 million.  Nor is Dharavi bereft of governing structures and productive social relations.  Residents have built strong collaborative networks, often across potentially volatile lines of caste and religion.  Many cooperative societies work together with NGOs to provide residents with essential services such as basic healthcare, schooling and waste disposal, often compensating for the formal government’s woeful inadequacy in meeting their needs.  Although these under-resourced organizations have touched only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, their efforts must be acknowledged, along with the fact that slum-dwellers, despite their grinding poverty, have lives of value and dignity, and a resourcefulness that stretches far beyond the haphazard, individualistic survival-of-the-fittest sort shown in Slumdog. 

In the end, Slumdog presents a profoundly dehumanizing view of the poor, with all its troubling political implications.  Since there are no internal resources, and none capable of constructive voice or action, all “solutions” must arrive externally.  After a harrowing life in an anarchic wilderness, salvation finally comes to Jamal in the form of an imported quiz-show, which he succeeds in thanks only to “destiny.”  Must other unfortunates, like the stoic Jamal, patiently await their own destinies of rescue by a foreign hand? While this self-billed “feel good movie of the year” may help us “feel good” that we are among the lucky ones on earth, it delivers a patronizing, colonial and ultimately sham statement on social justice for those who are not.

MITU SENGUPTA, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics & Public Administration at Ryerson University in Toronto. She can be reached at mitu.sengupta@gmail.com