Slumdog Millionaire: Wrapping poverty in fantasy

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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.
 

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Comments

I saw the movie and found it

I saw the movie and found it one of the better movies in 2009. Maybe India will be the location for more movies in the future ?

Cheers Matthew,
Provillus

I felt this was a wonderful

I felt this was a wonderful movie and story, despite what political stances it may or may not make.

Unforgettable film as an indian

Its a great misunderstanding of our indian elite people about the film . This film does not show indian poverlty but it make a learning for the elite people ,they should think also about this area of india if they want to make the india a develop country. No one can see the dream of develop country wherever the realistic film scenerio is present .

A big disappointment.

http://greatbong.net/2008/12/29/slumdog-millionaire-the-review/

Here is the short of it.

I did not like “Slumdog Millionaire”. Or perhaps I should say I was not at all impressed. Maybe it was all the hype, the Oscar buzz and the “It is soooo awesome” first-person accounts I have heard over the last few weeks that led me to go into the theater with unrealistic expectations. Perhaps.

First let us get the standard attacks on reviews one does not like out of the way.

Yes yes I am being contrarian to get attention.

Yes yes I am too idiotic to understand a truly great movie.

Yes yes I suffer from a third-world siege mentality where I am offended by anything that does not show my country in a purely positive light.

If we can now move beyond these, then let us proceed.

And yes. If you have not seen the movie, then perhaps you are better off not going below the fold (though I try my best not to give away the ending) if you want to “experience” without any pre-knowledge this supposed masterpiece.

There is a difference between clever film-making and great film-making. Make no mistake, Danny Boyle is immensely clever. “Slumdog Millionaire” is made as an out-and-out “crowd-pleaser” through proper audience-targetting which is done in the same careful way the Chopras target the lovey-dovey high school/college crowd and the Anil Sharmas target the uber-patriots.

This crowd-pleasing is done through punching together as many stereotypes that Westerners have about India as is humanly possible. People live in garbage heaps. A character jumps into a huge heap of human excreta and without batting an eyelid comes running out covered in brown slime, as if its the most natural thing in India, to get an autograph of a star. The hero, a Muslim, sees his family slaughtered by Hindu rioters and sees along with it a rioting kid (presumably) dressed as Lord Rama, in blue paint and with a bow and arrow in hand, standing as a sentinel of doom, an image whose indelibility in the character’s mind becomes a principal plot point.

A character is booked on the flimsiest of charges and then he is beaten black and blue in a police station and given volts of electricity.

What else? Let’s see.

Child prostitution. Check.

Forced begging. Check.

Blindings of innocent children. Check.

Rape. Check.

Human filth. Bahoot hain sahab.

Call centers. Oh yes most certainly.

Destiny. Of course.

But wait. Do Hindu saffron-clothed Senas not run havoc through Muslim slums? Do street kids not get taken in by beggar gangs and maimed? Doesnt rape happen in India? Are those slums specially constructed sets? Why do you, third world denizen, get so defensive about your own country? Chill.

Well yes these things do happen in India. However the problem is when you show every hellish thing possible all happening to the same person. Then it stretches reason and believability and just looks like you are packing in every negative thing that Westerners perceive about India for the sake of “crowd pleasing”. Because audiences and jury members “feel good” when their pre-conceived notions are confirmed. On the flip side, nothing disquiets a viewer as much as when his/her prejudices are challenged. So Boyle does the safe thing.

Let’s say I made a movie about the US where an African-American boy born in the hood, has his mother sell him to a pedophile pop icon, after which he gets molested by a priest from his church, following which he gets tied up to the back of a truck and dragged on the road by KKK clansmen. Then he is arrested and sodomized by a policeman with a rod, after which he is attacked by a gang of illegal immigrants, and then uses these life experiences to win “Beauty and The Geek”.

Even though each of these incidents have actually happened in the United States of America, I would be accused of spinning a fantastic yarn that has no grounding in reality, that has no connection to the “American experience” and my motivations would be questioned, no matter how cinematically spectacular I made my movie. At the very least, I wouldn’t be on 94% on Tomatometer and a strong Oscar favorite.

But then you say—Boyle is constructing a fairytale, a dash of Indian exotica, a love story. Surely he can take liberties. Make the darkness darker in order to brighten the halo around the hero and heroine.

Ok I get it. That’s why the first shot of Taj Mahal is through filth, when any other shot would have done. That’s why the host of Millionaire is shown heartlessly mocking the fact that the contestant is a humble “chaiwala” as the audience laughs with him in a way that reminded me of Amrish Puri, rolling his eyes and saying “Tu to gandhi naali ka keeddaaaa hainnnn”. Even though this kind of class-based running down will never ever happen on “Millionaire” if for nothing else than political correctness , lets accept it happens just to heighten the drama.

Which brings us to the main weakness of “Slumdog Millionaire”. There are way too many things you have to “accept” in order to enjoy this supposed “glorious celebration of exotica” , too many plot contrivances, too many loopholes you can drive a truck through that you have to turn a blind eye too.

Suspension of disbelief is one thing, after all movies are not logic proofs. But “Slumdog” sometimes gets so focused on the “scents” (excreta) and “sounds” (pain) of India that it does not bother to even try to make some of the fantastic coincidences look even moderately plausible.

But then again, as you said, it is a fairytale. Which means it has infinite license for taking liberties.

The thing is that the same people who are going ga-ga over “Slumdog” saying “Areee yaar, dont over-analyze. Dont see it from a realist perspective. Just enjoy the ride” will go and say “What! She cannot recognize Shahrukh Khan just because he doesn’t have his moustache” and ” Wait. Rahul Roy sings Jaane Jigar Jaane Man and just finds Anu Agarwal in the city of Mumbai by doing that ” and “Gimme a break. Sunny Deol can decimate a full Pakistani armored division with his bare hands and screams. What will these people think of next”.

The reason for that simple. Hindi movies are, by nature, downmarket and silly. English movies made by people like Boyle, even when they adopt all the conventions of the masala film, are not. Why? Because they have been validated by the “experts” as “life-affirming”, “glorious”, “celebration of the power of dreams”. So “Slumdog Millionaire” with its horribly cliched and predictable love story is a “monumental tribute to the power of love”. While Kuch Kuch Hota Hain with its equally cliched and predictable love story is “oooh sooooo bakwaas”.

Even with all the stereotypes and all the plot contrivances, I would have still enjoyed “Slumdog Millionaire” if it had managed to, at any time, transcend its “masala” origins to become something greater, as Oscar winners ought to. As the “Dark Knight” transcended its comic book origins to become a fascinating study of true evil. As “City of God” goes beyond the depiction of poverty in Brazilian slums (which is never its primary morbid fascination) to become an epic about the cycle of extreme violence.

In this respect, Slumdog is never greater than the sum of its parts. The production quality is top notch but then again even Ramgopal Verma’s turkeys are technically very accomplished. There is not much scope for acting. However Anil Kapoor, who is slowly coming close to legally becoming a werewolf with his ear ornament makes his mark everytime he unleashes his fake American accent, though you keep expecting him to say “jhakaaassss”.

If there is anything unique about Slumdog is its use of the millionaire game show device to further its plot (even though the links between the plot and the questions are tenuous and sometimes extremely artificial), which I believe is one of the primary reason why people get caught up in the movie. The same reason they get caught up in reality shows like “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” and get up and cheer when a total stranger gets a million bucks. However once one goes beyond that device, there really is nothing exceptionally unique to Slumdog, nothing that warrants all the hype and hoopla.

A big disappointment.

At its core, slumdog is a

At its core, slumdog is a fantasy film. The idea of the protagonist being stacked up against repeatedly terrible odds exists only to make the eventual payoff that much more significant to the audience.I agree with many of your problems with the film,and surely the academy and hollywood in general, do seem to have a perverse fascination with the struggles of other cultures, if only on a superficial level. However, I do not think the problems you had with this film are unique to it due to it being a portrayel of India. Many films set in the us contain just as much contrived plot points and have becomes critically acclaimed or oscar winners - The persuit of happiness, Crash etc.

Sometimes the smoke and mirrors are enough to trick a lot of peope into thinking a movie is more than the sum of its parts. crash was most definitly an example of that.

Myriad reviews of Slumdog

The movie slumdog millionaire was reviewed by me even before the film was officially released in India. After the release of the film a large number of reviews have appeared in mainstream media. for some like Barkha Dutt the movie is a celebration of the 'jugadu' spirit which according to Ms Dutt is 'so typical of India'.   In fact Barkha Dutt's review exposes the mindset of the urban elite who want to showcase India as a land of immense opportunities for the rich. So Ms Dutt writes in her article, "Even the game show operates, in a sense, as a metaphor not just for aspiration but for attainability." This is the basic point about the movie and people like Ms Dutt, namely, it creates the fantasy that the difference between Shining India and Suffering India is not structural...rather everyone in post liberalization India can grab the opportunity and become a part of Shining India.
 
On the other hand, for people like Vir Sanghvi, the response to the film essentially shows the maturity of Indian educated class who no longer pounce on films depicting Indian poverty....
 
Mukul Kesavan i think has a point in his critique of Slumdog when he argues that the film is essentially meant for the western market. However his argument is not based on the depiction of poverty....rather he makes his point on the basis of the usage of Hindi and English in the movie...it is indeed an interesting read....
 
 
 
 

Corporate Media and “Slumdog Millionaire”

This is exactly the role of the corporate media in generating countless distorted version of reviewing the film “Slumdog Millionaire” in the neo-liberal age. The mainstream media has always been instrumental in shaping the mass conscience by portraying the movie in the frame of neo-liberal set of values and ideological consensus of cultural capitalism. The media depicted the movie as a story of a poor slum boy who , in the final round got to manage billions of wealth to settle down in life, as Barkha Dutt wrote “It is all about the New India where dreams can come true’’. The role of the media unveiled and venerate the social practice of fictitious wealth-gain by an increasing engagement of general public in gambling activities in the name of the popular game like “Kaun Banega crorepati”. This type of social practice as the way of making quick money to accumulate wealth in life (in Barkha’s word “where dreams can come true”) indeed bears the sharper connotation of cultural globalisation; as neoliberal doctrine inherently encapsulated the chronic dogma of ‘consumerism’. The synthetic compassion of consumerism with systemic engagement of public in speculation symbolises the central message of cultural capitalism in this neo-liberal regime. This social practice of speculative gains and gambling around the world would ultimately lead to a catastrophic destination of greed, violence and erosion of moral principles and ethical values from the social life. In this sense the film can also be interpreted as the story of an Indian public who is stuck and confronted with the societal disbeliefs and non-cooperation of his social mates who are functionally positioned at upper class-tier of the society. This cultural erosion of ethical values, solidarity and respect for each other along with a passionate struggle of becoming rich by fictitious wealth gain with greed, envy and the lost sense of moral syndrome inevitably engulfed the whole spectrum of neo-liberal Indian society. Finally, instead of being a rejoinder by showing the way of a secured and sustainable path of enhancing income in the hands of the poor Indians, this film as an integral component of cultural globalisation, personified the tangible sustainability of the poor people in the fortunate lap of luck and speculation with myth of dreams and fantasies.

Rajsekhar Bhattacharyya
New Delhi

A good film

It is true that Indian film makers are totally out of sync with India. Almost all of their movies are mediocre and escapist. But pain of people claiming that "slumdog" is selling poverty is understandable. Film maker coming from outside portraying the poor and the downtrodden in their own city, which they have chosen to ignore.

Slumdog Millionaire -A distant perspective of Hollywood Realism

Subhanil’s assessment on the movie “Slumdog Millionaire” is good in the sense that, he actually brought out the major line of difference that “Slumdog Millionaire has achieved from the earlier movies (that sharply entail the glory of urban elite) of the same genre.
The mainstream cinema, being predominantly a form of narrative, has always been a raconteur; “Slumdog Millionaire” is no exception. The basis narrative style is always maintained with some constructed images of contemporary India. It is interesting to note that, the basic story of the protagonist boy who is deprived of the basic needs of livelihood always resembles any Hindi Bollywood movies in the decades of 70s and 80s, but the cinematic elements of this movie deeply involves the sagacity of Orientalist philosophy; as the movie is essentially a sympathetic stance towards India by a Western Film maker in dealing with the critical issues like slums, pavement dwellers, malnourishment and above all poverty. In this context I would like to recall one of scenes from the movie, where Jamal was cruelly beaten up by a policeman/or security guard, but ultimately, in the final round the foreigners-couple had saved Jamal from the cruel man. This hostile and deprecatory view of the East by the West, shaped by the empathetic attitudes of the west constructed the discourse of Development of third world countries with the stereotyped images of underdevelopment as projected in this film. This ideological syndrome of this Hollywood Realism has succeeded to penetrate the general mass of Indian Society in the name of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. Neither the film is a subaltern documentation of shinning India nor it has a nuance of Marxian standpoint (like the films of Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak). So, instead of depicting the exploitative class structure of Indian society, the movie has the derogatory signature of urban poverty viewed from the distant perspective of Holly(Bolly)wood Realism not from a closed perspective of social realism.

Rajsekhar Bhattacharyya

A good analysis

A Good analysis by Subhanil. The Bollywood of Mumbai or Kollywood of Chennai would never attempt to make movies based on people's abject poverty conditions that obtains in Mumbai's Dharavi which is full of slums and inhuman conditions. Because,such movies will flop commercially .And the argument being doled out by Indian producers is that why the people who are already saddeled with serious problems of life should further be stressed out with serious issue based movies .Hence most of the indian movies are full of sex,violence,fun, merry-go make-believe sequences of dance number and songs and the indian youth is forced to dream of a fantasy world of glamour etc. Secondly, Indian elite go ga-ga over the film Slumdog millionaire, not because the film tells the story of the slum-living people of Dharavi in Mumbai ,but because Indians like AR Rahmans, Imran Khans ,Anil kapoors get international recognition for their role in the film .The indian elite and for that matter, the dominant media is never bothered about the core issue of poverty and abysmal conditions in which people of Dharavi live but but glamour and pomp part of the film winning awards and winning nominations for Oscar.The indian elite feel 'proud' of Indians(Rahmans,Anil Kappors) winning international awards like we win few medals in Olympics rarely, because they feel they have some identity to show in International arena. For more than 2 years, the very same Dharavi people are fighting against the injustice being meted out to them in the name of Rehabilitation of Dharavi by which the entire slum areas of Dharavi would be demolished and handed over to commercial sharks,real estate bigwigs.In return, the Dharavi people would get an area of 225 sq ft of living space only, the rest would be garnered by super-rich developers for making millions of rupees by selling the prime property which is close to upwardly mobile of Bandra areas where Bal thackerays and Sachin Tendulkars live. ( Remember, the vast land property of Phenix mills compound and surrounding areas which were once working class areas have now been bought by the Real estate companies owned by Raj Thackeray of MNS and son of Manohar Joshi ,a former Lok sabha speaker and Shiv sena leader,following the closure of textile mills in Mumbai). The Dharavi Bachao Samiti (DBS ) has been demanding 450 sq ft area as living space ,but the govt is prepared to give space only upto 300 sq ft only as of now. And the indian media hardly highlights the problems of slum dwellers and how the neo-liberal policies of the successive govts force the rural people to migrate to big cities in search of jobs and make them live in slums and on roads. And if Salman Khans and sons of VIPS crush the people sleeping on the road while driving with reckless speed, that becomes big news for our corporate media , again not because of the poor victims getting killed but because of celebrity status of the perpeutators of the crimes.

This was posted by me. R

This was posted by me. R Maran

Perfect

Perfect Coment,Comrade! 

Poverty and 'Images' of Poverty is yet another spectacle in the postmodernity,so this film seems to be following the 'logic of our times' perfectly. Making a spectalce of poverty and in a way celebrating it ( afterall everything has to be celebrated in the postmodernity )  is quite evident in some of the cultural products of recent times.In iterature it is visible in the 'exoticas' written by indian english writers and in the cinema it is visible in so called cross over films. Reducing poverty to a spectacle is basically de-politicising poverty and com.subhanil has emphasised it perfectly!