Monday, March 2, 2009

'Slumdog' sacrifices Indian pride

An excellent article - hat tip to shadowarrior.

Sat, Feb 28, 2009
Irish Times

Danny Boyle’s film wallows in tired cliches of abysmal poverty and mindless villainy, writes PRIYA RAJSEKAR.

IT WAS no movie for the little boy transported from the slums of Mumbai to the glamorous red carpet at the Oscars. On a platform that makes even veterans weak in the knees, this boy who on a normal day deems a borrowed tarpaulin sheet his home, stood unwavering in his designer dinner jacket, dignified smile in place, as he thanked the people who had made this journey possible.

Yet, in the movie that swept the Oscars, he and his poverty-ridden friends are seen devoid of any dignity and pride – as slum “dogs”, a different species inhabiting a different world.

The mood of the moment is one of exhilaration, not just for those involved in the making of the movie, but also for Indians, worldwide. This despite the fact that it has taken this cultural treasure trove with more than a billion people over 80 years to get this far, and that too with a great deal of hand-holding by a British filmmaker.

Going by the media frenzy in India this week, it would seem a Bollywood movie won the award. There is great pride, hope and a sense of having arrived on the global cinema scene, with three of the eight Oscars won by Indians. Yet, in many Indian minds, there is this nagging doubt that the journey to Oscar glory may have exacted too high a price for India’s international image. Keeping with the spirit of the moment, even the sceptics are calm, cheering the winners on, but will the adulation last?

Targeted at a western audience that has always loved fairytales with happy endings, Slumdog Millionair e is just what the doctor ordered for the recession. For a hardcore movie fan, the over-hyped squalor and violence, the impeccable British accent of an unschooled teenager and even the hero’s improbable feat is merely the suspension of disbelief. But, for the average Indian, and the average Indian emigrant, the liberal use of stereotypes rankles. It is difficult not to squirm when, seated with a western audience, one witnesses the graphic portrayals of abuse and poverty, as though India has little else to offer. Given that India now makes more movies than Hollywood and that every year it has religiously sent in its Oscar hopefuls, many brilliant, and I dare say far better than Slumdog Millionaire, it is rather ironic that a non-Indian’s depiction of life in India is more palatable to the world than an all-Indian creation.

There are many obvious reasons why the movie is regarded a masterpiece.

However, if one has read the original novel, Q & A , by Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, it is hard to ignore certain deliberate and strategic changes. Why has the name of the protagonist, a secular Ram Mohammed Thomas, been changed into an easily identifiable Muslim name, Jamal Malik? Why not a Hindu name to go with the Hindu-dominated country? Were the repercussions of Hindu-Muslim tensions so relevant to the central theme of the movie? Then again, the novel itself is not so rooted in the slums and there is far less of an effort to draw attention to the sword-wielding Hindu fundamentalist.

In truth, about 65 million Indians live in slums around India and this includes migrants from neighbouring countries. It is a sad reality, and undoubtedly something to be moved by and ashamed of. But, taken in the context of a billion Indians, it is easy to see that India has a lot more to it than abysmal poverty and mindless villainy that the movie uses as a leitmotif.

Sudheer Mishra, a popular Indian director of the critically acclaimed movie Dharavi, named after Asia’s largest slum, had an interesting anecdote to narrate on the subject of stereotyping.

After an interview with him soon after the release of Dharavi, the foreign TV crew he’d been with went on to shoot the inside of a slumdweller’s hut. The rolling cameras were abruptly halted, however, the minute the crew realised the hut was equipped with a television set.

Sure, Slumdog Millionaire is a little better than the usual association with “turbaned”, wrinkly snake charmers and elephants lazing across the roads but doesn’t a country with leading space technology, nuclear power and IT excellence deserve more?

As an unsolicited exercise in defamation, even as it warms the heart and lifts the human spirit in true fairytale style, it wilfully discourages the average tourist to India, for whom the graphic, stark images of misery will easily overwhelm any painstakingly made holiday brochure. The boy covered in human waste epitomising the slumdweller’s spirit may attract the moviegoer but will without doubt keep at bay any kind of inward investment that will bail the slumdweller out.

It should not be forgotten that in the beginning, Vasco da Gama and even Christopher Columbus had originally set out to find not “slum” India, but the El Dorado that India was.

Director Danny Boyle’s tributes to the Mumbai spirit and the Indian artists in the movie has been generous. His career and those of the lucky winners will be star-studded. And as the flavour of the season, Bollywood itself is living its own “Bollywood dream” at the moment – of making it big in Hollywood.

But for the little Indian “slumdogs” who have given the movie its soul, this is a fleeting moment. For when the clock strikes midnight, these people who have helped create many millionaires around the world will return to their tarpaulin-roof homes, to take their usual place beside their colleagues, too proud and too dignified to “ask for more”. City of Joy has done little for Kolkatta (Calcutta), and Slumdog Millionaire will do little for Dharavi.

As for the price for the prize, it is quite evident the underdogs have paid up.

Priya Rajsekar is a freelance journalist from Tamil Nadu state in southern India. She has been living in Ireland for 10 years.

See also:
The Times (UK)
January 14, 2009
Shocked by Slumdog's poverty porn
Danny Boyle's film is sweeping up awards, but it's wrong to revel in the misery of India's children
Alice Miles

There are many reasons why you might want to see Slumdog Millionaire - it is directed by the brilliant Danny Boyle, it is set in the sensual feast that is Mumbai and it has won awards for music, directing and acting. And then there is the fact that critics and its own publicity have branded it a feel-good movie. Call me shallow, but that ultimately swung it for me.

A few hours later I was wincing in my seat. The film opens with a scene of horrible violence: a man hanging from the ceiling of a police station, being tortured to unconsciousness, a trickle of blood running from his mouth. It moves swiftly into scenes of utter misery and depravity, in which small starving children are beaten, mutilated and perverted.

Mothers die horribly in front of their sons, small girls are turned into prostitutes, small boys into beggars. I hope it won't spoil the feel-good surprise if I tell you that one particularly sadistic scene shows a young boy having his eyes burnt out with acid to maximise the profits of street begging. Charities working with street children in India seem unaware of any instances of this, although Save the Children emphasises that similar violence against children by beggar mafia is well documented.

The film is brilliant, horrifying, compelling and awful, the relentless violence leavened only by an occasional clip of someone working his way through the questions on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?. You might want to look away, but you can't and, despite the banal storyline, I can see why it is pulling in the awards.

Yet the film is vile. Unlike other Boyle films such as Trainspotting or Shallow Grave, which also revel in a fantastical comic violence, Slumdog Millionaire is about children. And it is set not in the West but in the slums of the Third World. As the film revels in the violence, degradation and horror, it invites you, the Westerner, to enjoy it, too. Will they find it such fun in Mumbai?

Like the bestselling novel by the Americanised Afghan Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Slumdog Millionaire is not a million miles away from a form of pornographic voyeurism. A Thousand Splendid Suns is obsessed with rape and violence against women, the reader asked to pore over every last horrible detail. Slumdog Millionaire is poverty porn.

Here is the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) summary of the film. It judged it suitable for viewers aged 15 or over (I would add another ten to that): “Strong violence is seen in a scene where a group of Muslims are attacked and killed in the street - together with general chaos and beatings, there are some stronger and more explicit moments, such as the deliberate setting of a man on fire... We also later see strong violence that includes a knife held to a woman's throat as she's forcibly snatched off the street, an impressionistic blinding of a young beggar boy, and torture by electricity in a police station. The BBFC has placed this work in the COMEDY genre.”

Comedy? So maybe that's it: I just didn't get the joke.

I wonder if India will, or whether, as with Aravind Adiga's Man Booker prize-winning novel, The White Tiger, people will feel more ambivalent than in the West. An editorial in, a Mumbai-based online newspaper, read: “The miserable existence of the average slum dweller, which we in India know so well, is novel to the Western viewer... The awarding of the Booker Prize to The White Tiger shows that the seamier side of the Indian dream continues to have a resonance in Western sensibilities. The White Tiger's victory left many Indians underwhelmed; who is to say that when Indian audiences finally see Slumdog they will not be equally put off?”

As a review on the same website by Vrinda Nabar, an Indian professor at a US university, put it: “Slumdog's eventual victory comes at a price. When the selective manipulation of Third World squalor can make for a feel-good movie in a dismal year, the global village has a long way to go.”

Quite. The Mumbai Mirror dubbed it “Slum Chic”, and notes that the term “slumdog” is not widely recognised in India: “It appears to be a British invention to describe a poor Dharavi kid in a derogatory way.”

I am being highly selective: mostly, India seems in thrall to the brilliance of Slumdog and how it has put Mumbai and Bollywood on the map.

That said, most Indians have not seen the film, because it will not open there until next week, a delay that has raised an eyebrow or two: did Mumbai not deserve to see Slumdog first? Instead, pirated copies are doing the rounds while America watches a film that Hollywood refused to fund, because “who wants to see misery and street kids?”.

Boyle describes the film as “very subversive”. He has forestalled potential criticism about plundering another country's horror as entertainment by employing many Indian actors, including Bollywood stars and an Indian composer. Much of the dialogue is in Hindi.

And it may be that the brilliance of the film rescues Boyle from criticism: he is a film-maker, not a social commentator, and nobody doubts its cinematic brilliance. As The New York Times put it: “It's hard to hold on to any reservations in the face of Mr Boyle's resolutely upbeat pitch and seductive visual style.”

That very seductiveness is the problem. But if Boyle may be absolved from criticism, I am not sure the same can be said of the audience. “Slumderful!” declared the New York Post. When we are suckered into enjoying scenes of absolute horror among children in slums on the other side of the world, even dubbing them comedy, we ought to question where our moral compass is pointing. Boyle's most subversive achievement may lie not in revealing the dark underbelly of India - but in revealing ours.

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