Slumdog Millionaire: Was It A Real Win For India?

Frida Pinto and Rubina Ali from the movie “Slumdog Millionaire” greet each other at the Governor’s Ball following the 81st Academy Awards Sunday, Feb. 22, 2009, in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

And the Oscar goes to…..Slumdog Millionaire!

Every so often a wonderful movie about India wins a series of Oscars promising to finally put the face of this massive culture on the map. Gandhi, A Passage to India, Slumdog Millionaire.  But after the initial euphoria, the world eventually goes back to life as they know it. This time, after sweeping the Oscars with eight awards, India’s slumdogs are headed back to the slums.

The movie has reached massive acclaim in a very short span of time. Americans love it as it offers the romance of a rags- to-riches story artfully crafted by the creative hand of Danny Boyle, a proven talent in film-making. Indians on the other hand have had mixed responses about what the movie portrayed and the fact that its producers have exploited those who live in abject poverty.

So the question is did India actually win? Or was it simply a convenient subject for Hollywood?

Poverty porn

As brilliant as the film is, it is vile. And what’s more, Slumdog Millionaire is about children set not in the West but in the slums of the Third World. As the film revels in the violence, degradation and horror, it begs to questions whether the Westerner will be equally entertained by a visit to the actual slums of India?

Danny Boyle has been slammed for creating “poverty porn“. An article in the Times states that

“Boyle’s most subversive achievement may lie not in revealing the dark underbelly of India – but in revealing ours.” (The Times).

“Slumdog” – a metaphor for prejudice

The very term “slumdog” has raised an outcry among the people of the slums who have been protesting that they are not dogs but the future of India. In India, the term ‘dog’ does not evoke the image of a cute, furry domestic animal but rather a mangy pariah that eats dirt to survive; and spreads disease to those who touch it.

More than this the term evokes an old hatred  – the people of Mumbai cannot forget that years ago when the country was still a British colony, a sign outside the Breach Candy Swimming Club (which is today a prestigious member only club for affluent Mumbai residents) clearly stipulated that no “dogs or Indians” were allowed any where near the premises. Even then, Indians were equated with pariahs.

Sadia Shepard a documentary filmmaker told the New York Times that Simon Beufoy (the screenwriter)’s “use of the word “dog” was a problematic choice he made arbitrarily, and clearly without doing enough research.” But I wonder if perhaps he had done the research and it was intentionally provocative.  If art is meant to raise awareness then why abstain from controversy?

The child actors will return to the slums

The children who acted in the film are real slumdogs and to this day are still living in horrific conditions with shacks as their homes and open areas for toilets. The producers have arranged a school that they can attend but after being flown to the U.S. for the glitz and glamor of the award show, they will return to the slums where the school of “street smart” is the only education that guarantees survival.

Rubina Ali and Azharuddin Ismail, who played Latika and Salim in the early scenes of the film received $725 dollars and $2,465 respectively for a year’s work. Don’t miss BBC’s short documentary about the reality of the child actors’ lives and living conditions. It is a huge eye opener.

To make matters worse, Azharuddin’s home in the slums of Mumbai, close to where the film was shot, was demolished by the local authorities during filming and he now sleeps under a sheet of plastic tarpaulin with his father, who suffers from tuberculosis.

Is it even fair to expose the kids to the lights of the Oscars only to send them back to their miserable plight that they hate? Arguably the slumdogs are the losers rather than the winners.

A big win for the Indian entertainment industry

On the flip side, the success of the movie at the Oscars is a huge boost for the Indian entertainment industry.

The biggest winner for India was A.R. Rahman, the extraordinarily talented musician who composed the songs and musical score for the film. He won two oscars for each of these categories. This is not Rahman’s first rags-to-riches music story: he also composed the music for Bombay Dreams, an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical that was based upon a similar theme where a boy from the slums makes it big. Rahman’s compositions over the years have been truly magnificent.

Resul Pookutty, a graduate from the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India, has been in the industry for more than 10 years and has worked on several big films. He won for sound mixing of Slumdog with Ian Tapp and Richard Pryke.

Clearly these awards are big wins for India. But yet, no tribute or dedication to the victims of the Mumbai terrorist attacks that just weeks ago shook the nation and the world!