The debate raging in the Indian media as to whether Slumdog Millionaire has received accolades from the West because of its portrayal of Indian poverty is a complete non-starter. In this debate many voices have been heard (including that of Amitabh Bachhan) who have argued that the film portrays Indian (particularly Mumbai) poverty in the most gory details which provides a voyeuristic pleasure to the Western audience. Herein lies the secret of the success of the film in the West.
In all these analyses there is an effort on the part of the elite media to deny the existence of the poor. Basking in the glory of ‘Shining India’ and record number of billionaires in the country, the Indian elite simply want to wish away the existence of the poor. The fact of the matter however is a bit different. The trajectory of economic reforms in India has been such that the increase in the number of billionaires in the country has been at the cost of pushing to the margin even larger number of people. Even official statistics admit that the pace of reducing poverty has greatly come down in India in the post-reform period. On the other hand, it has been pointed out by noted economist Prof. Utsa Patnaik that the official poverty figures are wrong and poverty in India has actually increased drastically in the post reform period. Since the film is based on Mumbai, the following quote from Prof. Utsa Patnaik’s article will not be inappropriate;
“Urban Maharashtra is the most expensive place for the poor where they have fared worst. There is a massive rise from 52.5 percent to 85 percent in the population unable to access through their spending, even 2100 calories per day, the official urban nutrition norm. Over half the urban population has gone below the lowest nutritional level, 1800 calories compared to just over a quarter a decade earlier. In-migration from rural areas and other states does not explain the scale of the worsening which is mainly on account of the people already there.”-- http://pd.cpim.org/2008/0608_pd/06082008_10.htm
It is ironic that no Bollywood film, in the recent past, of any fame has even tried to capture this growing misery of the people of Mumbai and it takes a Meera Nair or a Danny Boyle to do so. Ever since the reforms we have seen that the focus of Bollywood movies sharply shifted towards a celebration of NRI lives and lives of the super-rich creating a fantasy world devoid of the ugliness of poverty, slums or malnourished children. In this respect, it is welcome that Slumdog has moved out of this strait jacket and focused on the underbelly of Mumbai.
The scenes of the film depicting the miseries of the slum children, particularly that of Jamal the protagonist and his brother, with some fine camera work and editing is indeed worthy of praise. The depiction of the children doing all kinds of work starting from begging to selling different commodities to stealing to working as guide in the Taj Mahal and the entry of Jamal’s elder brother into the world of organized crime have been superbly filmed. Particularly, the shot where Jamal was trying to steal a roti from the window of a running train while he was hanging from the roof with a rope held by his brother was superbly done. All this indeed is the reality of urban India where our everyday existence bears testimony to all that was shown in the film.
These slices of reality in the film are squeezed between the fantasy run of Jamal who won Rs 10 million in ‘Who Will be a Millionaire?’ or ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati?’. This dream run of Jamal is so out of the ordinary for a slum-dweller that he is hounded and tortured by the police under the prejudice that he has cheated in the show. In response, Jamal says that how each and every answer that he gave was a result of his experiences with life as a poor slum dwelling child in Mumbai. For example when asked what does Ram carry in his right hand, Jamal remembers the Mumbai riots and a figure of Ram, when the Muslim locality was attacked by Hindutva brigade and gives the correct answer that Ram carries a bow and arrow in his right hand. In this sense every answer that he gives is a result of a remarkable set of coincidences whereby each one of them is linked to some or the other experience of his miserable life. In this entire drama that is played out in the sets of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’, we also get a glimpse of the malice of the rich to the poor, in the character of Anil Kapoor, the anchor of the show. His continuous jabs at Jamal for being a Chaywallah and prompting him the wrong answer of a question only exposes the hatred of the rich for the poor. In the end however, the underdog wins the game stunning all and to the cheers of the poor while at the same time winning back his lady love. Slumdog in its essence then is a well made rag to riches movie, with some superb camera work, editing, script, acting and direction.
The problem of the film however lies elsewhere. Firstly, it is true that Slumdog was never intended to be a documentary film on Mumbai’s poverty, it is not proper to judge the film as to how well poverty has been depicted. Rather the point is that the poverty in the film is shown from a distance. With adoption of the narrative style of flashback, the viewer in some sense is put as a distant observer from the crushing poverty of Jamal, both in time as well as space. The poverty of Jamal is a memory and hence is at a distance, moreover this memory is unfolded not in the slums but in the police station or the sets of ‘Who wants to be a millionaire?’ when Jamal is on the threshold of money and fame through his participation in the TV show.
The importance of this TV show should not be missed. ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati?’ has been an iconic TV show in post-liberalization India. In this show anybody can become a millionaire provided s/he answers a set of questions from general knowledge. Huge amount of money and instant fame awaits the winner of the show. Essentially speaking this show is a cultural product of post-liberalization India. It portrays the ambition of the common man to be a millionaire in the shortest possible way. The show was a huge success in India not only because it was hosted by the legendary Amitabh Bachan but because people identified with those who were contesting and their desire to win the promised money. In the film, this TV show turns out to be the path to salvation for Jamal, or anybody like Jamal who have witnessed crushing poverty.
Jamal is also aptly aided by one of the most important economic symbol of contemporary India, the call centre of the booming BPO industry. Jamal who used to work in the call centre as a chaywallah managed to learn some English and also remembers the names of streets in London, courtesy his association with the call centre.
This is the fantasy that is created in the film, namely that anybody in India with the help of luck and basic intelligence can do well and live a better life. The real problem of the film does not lie with the depiction of poverty or the underbelly of India. The problem lies in the basic fact that the film ignores the questions of the exploitative power structures inherent in Indian society which are directly responsible for the mass poverty that we witness today. Rather the film endorses the symbols of neo-liberalism as an emancipatory tool for the poor. The conflict between Shining India and Suffering India is reduced to null and void where the Suffering India clings on to Shining India for its upliftment. In this sense then, the triumph of Jamal in the film is not only a triumph of the Slumdog but also is posited as a moral triumph of Shining India, where the deep fissures between rich and poor and the coercion of capitalism is sought to be kept under the carpet.
The movie then in its essence while remaining unquestioning to the existent structures of power, which are the causes of massive poverty, portrays poverty in its many faced ‘ugliness’. The absence of any attack or question on the basic structures of society and economy endears it to the liberals in the West where it turns out to be a massive hit and favourite. In India however, the elites are agitated simply because the movie portrays the existent underbelly of every glittery city in the country, which they have tried so hard to forget in their collective amnesia of the poor.