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Poverty, Violence and Greed

Slumdog Reality?

by CHARLES R. LARSON

After all the international controversy about Slumdog Millionaire, if Hollywood crowns the film with an Oscar for the best movie of the year, Indians, I suspect, are going to have much to crow about.  How ironic that a half a year ago the movie’s investors feared that they had made a real dog?a film that would interest no one?and were considering dumping it directly on DVD with no release in movie theatres around the world.  Can the movie moguls (mughals?) have been so myopic that they had no idea of the film’s importance?

Then the slow release, mostly in art-houses in the United States and England, rather than  the big cineplexes, and the increasingly positive word-of-mouth (still in the West), followed by the surprise Golden Globe Award as best film of the year along with several other significant awards for music and acting.  And at the time Slumdog Millionaire hadn’t even been released in India.

I was traveling in India when all the brouhaha about the film exploded.  Many Indians were ecstatic about all the attention and the subsequent awards the film rapidly acquired: everything about Danny Boyle’s film was happening so quickly.  Reviews of the movie (which officially opened in India on Friday, January 23rd) were positive, even glowing.  Pirated copies of the film were selling everywhere for as little as 40 rupees, less than a dollar.  The Indian press was overflowing with articles about the film, photos of the actors, the director and the composer, and interviews with Vikas Swarup, author of Q&A, the novel that became the basis for the film. 

A typical review?for example, Khalid Mohamed’s in The Hindustan Times (Jan. 24)?began by proclaiming, "There’s reason to dance on the streets."  Mohamed gave the film five stars, the highest possible ranking, and ended his glowing evaluation by stating, "Literally every performance rocks.  Still, your heart goes out most of all to Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail and Rubiana Ali, the kids who portray the knee-high Jamal, Salim, and Latika.  They’re extraordinary just like the rest of Slumdog Millionaire.  As one of the songs goes, Jai jo!"

Then the attacks on the film began, generally arguing that the unflattering representation of Mumbai?especially the poverty?lock India into stereotypes that Westerners are already too quick to assume.  Arindam Chaudhuri, in The Times of India (Feb 2nd), excoriated that the film "sucks," describing the movie as "A phony poseur that has been made only to mock India for the viewing pleasure of the First World!!"  The film "illogically shows every negative thing about India happening in the protagonist’s life…slums, open-air lavatories, riots, underworld, prostitution, brothels, child labour, begging, blinding and maiming of kids to make them into ‘better beggars,’ petty peddlers, traffic jams, irresponsible call centre executives…."

The corrective to this barrage of negative attacks had already begun to appear, also in The Times (Jan. 26th).  Santosh Desai titled his op-ed essay, "The slum is not the other India."  It’s the real India.  Slumdog Millionaire depicts India as it is?with all its ills and foibles–arguing that Indians are not being honest with themselves if "We genuinely believe that Mumbai can be summed up by the Taj."

Yet, the controversy mushroomed, especially in the Western press.  The people who made the film were accused of making a fortune out of India’s misery, prompting the same people to announce that a portion of the film’s profits will be given to India’s poor.  Others objected that the child actors in Slumdog Millionaire were given only a pittance for their labor?in effect, exploited.  That criticism prompted further good deeds by the film’s backers, who promise that the children will be supported in on-going ways.

The entire controversy of the film’s phenomenal success pivots on someone making money off someone else’s misery, distorting and exploiting another culture.  Fortunately, Desai offers clarity here by stating, "If cinematic representations about India are stereotyped, so are those for all cultures."  Right on.  Desai has summed up the flaw of Hollywood (and Bollywood) itself.

I think of the times when my wife and I have sat through four or five previews of "coming attractions."  All the movies blend together, blood and mayhem, everyone gets killed.  Bodies are everywhere, which makes me recall the remark from an African student about the day he arrived in the United States, in New York City. Riding in a taxi, he said he was afraid to get out for fear that the streets were filled with gangsters who would kill him.  Hollywood films shown around the world, certainly give that impression.   Female American students I’ve talked to overseas have told me that men in the Third World assume that they are interested in the same non-stop sexual activities depicted in American pornographic films.

Well, those images about America are about as accurate as the poverty, violence, and greed depicted in Slumdog Millionaire, which is only to state that they depict certain excesses and extremes of life everywhere: the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.  If Hollywood crowns the film with an Oscar for the best movie of the year, I suspect that Indians everywhere will rejoice.  And maybe we’ll all think a little more seriously about the stereotypes we use and confront every day of our lives.

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. His books include Under African Skies, Worlds of Fiction, The Ordeal of the African Writer and Academia Nuts. He can be reached at: clarson@american.edu