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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!

Written by Reenita Malhotra

Reenita Malhotra Hora is an Ayurveda clinician, entrepreneur, writer and mom. Her experience has ranged from running Ayoma, an Ayurveda business to running a natural health practice at San Francisco's California Pacific Medical Center.

Reenita is a published author of two books books about health and wellness: ‘Ayurveda - the Natural Medicine of India’ and
‘Inner Beauty’. She is also the Editor for Green Options Media's business blogs and a freelance writer for a variety of print and web publications.

In quieter moments, she likes to spend her time hiking, swimming the warm seas, cooking with the family or writing fantasy fiction adventure stories for kids from from 2 to 92.

Check out her wisdom at www.reenita.com

Comments

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  1. Thanks for providing this extensive background information and unique perspective on the film. Maybe the real benefit is to inspire this type of dialogue on the topic and get people to finally understand the dynamics of life in the slums of India.

  2. Absolutely. The question of “art imitating life vs. life imitating art” has come up again and again with a view to this film…given that the kids were flown out for the award ceremony.

    The Indian public and local conservative governments have a nasty habit of objecting to anything ‘Western.’ Sometimes for good reason. But on the flip side, if artists do not explore and find reason to awaken the world through creativity, then what good is their artistry?

    That being said, India is not all about abject poverty, slum life and the destitute. I would love to see an Indian film that does not necessarily focus on an Indian wedding, life in the slums, rags-to-riches, destitute poverty or prostitution or child abuse….I would love to see a ‘Vicky Christina Barcelona’ or something that provides a glimpse into the Indian experience that natives and visitors know and enjoy.

  3. I agree! Slumdog Millionaire did not need to paint an accurate portrait of child poverty in India – that’s what documentaries are for. If anything, it will just serve to raise awareness about issues, something which everyone can benefit from, particularly nonprofits that are working to alleviate the conditions.

    For example, check out this short film from Explore.org:

    Rescued from Mumbai Brothels
    http://explore.org/explore/india/films/65

    It’s actually part of a series, so dig deeper if you’d like.

  4. The title of your article, “Slumdog Millionaire: Was It A Real Win For India?”, honestly, is worrying me. I truly admire your writing skills and the clarity of thought you have portrayed. But what i fail to understand is, Why relate a movie to the ‘glorification’ of India or individuals to this movie? Its just fiction! Isnt it? The so-called ‘objectional’ things in the movie are reality. If we were really against them highlighting or filming that part of our society, then why did we grant them permission to film? Oh, if we dont, will effect our global, social image?

    I m sure you will agree that if this low-budget movie had go the acclaim it has, we probably wudnt have been talking about it. Why are we so sensitive to issue that only lead to gr8 intellectual discussion. If we are really concerned about the prestige or the kids going back to the slums; can we do anything for them? may be giv them some education and get them into good acting schools? Why shud we demand the crew of Slumdog Millionaires to take that responsibility. They were only supposed to pay for the services they got whithout violating the rules. If they have mistreated the children then lets take them to task. Else, lets just enjoy the movie and treat it as only fiction and not get carried away with what they (or the world) will think of India. If you are really concerned. Make an effort, publish it here. We want to join you.

  5. Ashwin,

    Don’t get me wrong – I love the movie, and I as I mentioned, I do believe that the filmmakers have done the research and made the movie to intentionally provoke. Which is the very purpose of art.

    I do not for a moment suggest or ‘demand’ that it is up to the filmmakers to put the kids through school. But one cannot pass of the movie as enjoyable fiction without understanding the reality that these child actors will go back to a life of disease and unhygenic conditions in Dharavi having been paid a pittance salary compared to that stipulated by industry standards. As you said, the “objectional things in the movie are reality.” The kids are after all…slumdogs.

    I am not concerned about “what the world will think of India.” Rather glad that they have a window to its truth. But I am conscious…deeply conscious of the ‘slumdog’ reaching recognition only through the glitz of an Oscar…soon to be pushed into the background when the next blockbuster film grabs everyone’s attention.

    Hollywood is a fickle place. Let’s not become lackadaisical about what this brilliant movie had exposed to the world at large.

  6. I hope more articles like this are published and discussed in the days and months to come. Art is often provocative and if this movies serves to open up the dialogue and create awareness for the culture behind an emerging super power, than this film more than deserves the praise that is being heaped on its creators and participants.

  7. Can someone explain what the concept of “poverty porn” is exactly? I am afraid I simply don’t understand the critique.

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