A Hollow Message of Social Justice
Slumdog Millionaire's Dehumanizing View of India's Poor
By MITU SENGUPTA
February 20, 2009
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
An idiots' guide to India
Saturday 21 February
When India's call centres and booming economy began to grab headlines, writers and filmmakers attempted to woo western audiences with tales from the subcontinent. Some of these works were nuanced and sophisticated, like Richie Mehta's recent film Amal or Suketu Mehta's bestselling book Maximum City. But many of them were designed to cash in on the India craze and provide digestible titbits about the country's culture and history to western audiences – India for idiots, if you will.
Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, the runaway favourite for the best picture Oscar tomorrow night, is precisely one of these simplistic texts. It contains a smattering of all the major Indian hot buttons: call centres, religious riots, urban development, sex workers, the Taj Mahal –and, of course, slums.
The film, which traces the life of Jamal Malik from the devastatingly poor streets of Mumbai to his deliverance on the TV game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire, has elicited some furious reactions in India. Many have pointed out that the slum children Boyle used as actors weren't fairly compensated for their performances. A group of protestors in the city of Patna burned Slumdog posters and ransacked a theatre where the film was being screened, claiming that film's depiction of slum dwellers was a "violation of human rights." Some Indian commentators insinuated that the movie has been successful in the west because uses "poverty porn" to "titillate foreign audiences".
At the other end of the spectrum, Slumdog's admirers assert that those who whine about the film are guilty of "patriotic indignation" and lack "genuine anger and concern" about India's horrific poverty. Fans not only find the film upbeat, colourful and entertaining, they also applaud the fact that it sheds light on the state of slums. The Indian romance novelist Shobhaa De claimed that it has taken an outsider like Boyle "to go fearlessly into 'No Man's Land' and hold up a mirror to our sordid society…"
Yes, Boyle deserves a pat on the back for diving into Mumbai's entrails and drawing attention to its poverty. But it's a mistake to label him original for shedding light on India's underbelly. Before him, scores of filmmakers – from the iconic Guru Dutt to today's Madhu Bhandarkar – have decried inequity and portrayed India honestly, warts and all. The legendary Raj Kapoor even employed a mixture of fantasy and realism that pre-dates Boyle's masala formula for cinematic success.
But it's also clear that Boyle's version of the third world, complete with fetidness and depravity, is particularly gratifying to our UK and US sensibilities. Why? Because it grossly oversimplifies poverty and our relationship with it.
After watching the film, viewers are left to infer that slums are horrid, rancid places because of beggar masters, Hindu zealots and Muslim gangs. Of course these forces play their role in perpetuating misery. But in reality, slums are an international problem caused by an intricate set of entities: corrupt government officials, gargantuan multinational corporations and suspect IMF structural adjustment programs.
Playing it safe, Boyle doesn't implicate any of these entities. As a result, his movie does allow us to believe that we have been responsible global citizens by engaging with the intensity of third world slums. We in the audience even feel genuine sympathy for destitution. But at no point do we have to forsake the delusion that abject poverty and inequity are strictly foreign things for which we share no culpability.
In fact, far from spreading the blame for global poverty, Boyle's film actually suggests that the west is the solution to India's problems. Protagonist Jamal only escapes his ceaseless cycle of squalor and crime once he makes it into the orderly, democratic world of a British call centre. This call centre, in turn, delivers him to his fateful redemption on Millionaire. The subtext is clear: things are really bad in urban India but healthy servings of western values are just what the doctor - and the Academy judges - ordered.
Of course, many relish this action-packed fairy tale. It reinforces the notion that our policies and mindsets are righteous and can rid the world of its troubles. Stories that perpetuate this myth are especially appealing right now. In the wake of a grave economic collapse and a wretched, unending war, we have to begin the painful process of questioning the integrity of our way of life. A movie like Slumdog allows us to put that off for a few more minutes.
Its particularly interesting to read the Many self righteous British people's comments to this article refuting it. Here is a sample
21 Feb 09, 9:24am
Danny Boyle has taken a novel by an Indian writer, Vikas Swarup, and has filmed it with an Indian cast and crew - in India. If Danny was Indian, Hirsh Sawhney would be celebrating his success. But Danny is a Brit (of Irish descent) and therefore has to be condemned as a colonial exploiter. Pathetic.
21 Feb 09, 9:24am
Silly me: there was I watching a story about 'slum guy gets well paid job', when all the while Danny Boyles sickening western-imperialist subtext passed me me by.
Is he a racist too? (Just want to check)
Thank you thought police. I'm so grateful for opening my eyes.
21 Feb 09, 9:27am
India is a hugely overpopulated, country with a deeply bigoted caste system. These are the two biggest factors in it's poverty. India has a space program and nukes but slums.
I don't buy into the hype about how great the India boom is when they seem to care so little for the poverty stricken in their country but neither do I accept this is all our fault.