Editorial : Slumdog Millionaire and the question of Indian poverty art

Slumdog millionaire gets an indian release shortly.  This is going to make many people angry. often people in India (and many Indians who have butted their head frustratingly against the rigidity of the Western upper class)  are irritated when a foreigner with a different skin color has the  audacity to comment about India’s poor(who are as numerous as any other, in a numerous country).

Part of the issue is the fact that people can’t “control” a white guy that sends messages from an Indian slum. You cant get his family to “put sense into him” you can’t starve his sources of finance… Part of this is that there is a whole Indian Poverty Industry (from United nations institutions to christian aid organizations to charities run by  the queen of england) whose raison de itre  is the fact that India does not have a social security net for its destitute, and this is a wedge with which to “enter” India .

With a Middle class the size of the US and with a goodish upper class, India should be in a position to take care of it’s own poor. The problem is that India is too big , and noone outside india is, in reality, committed to welfare of India as a nation. As a result, it is left to the government (both the central and state government) to take care of India’s poverty, and between corruption and selfish political bases based on people living in the slums, this Infrastructure is run down. The Indian Army does involve itself in welfare during emergencies, but its a bad idea to impose patriotism at the barrel of a gun.

As a  result India’s poor exist. in pathetic conditions. For every tourist flying into sahar airport to see…and smell.

So can you blame a white guy (filmmaker or not) for trying to find a metaphor for disempowered people among the slums of dharavi? (Indian filmmakers have done this too, Dev benegal’s film Split wide open, from which Slumdog draws much uncredited inspiration is much starker and more honest than the glossy that slumdog is).

I see the issue breaking down  into the following lines  of offense:

1. Bollywood filmmakers object: their objections are twofold, they bristle under not enough recognition to the Industry from the “west” which gives an easy path to such films, that highlight India’s poverty. They see this as the “west”(hollywood)  financing a fifth column in the entratainment industry in India, even as Major western studios take equity stakes in production and distribution In india.

Also they feel that the primarily entretainment nature of Bollywood films is being made light of, when people make films about India’s poor. “don’t we know we have poor people”? the argument goes . “stop lecturing us.”This is particularly irritating to bollywood when it comes from Britain(and the british intellectual/ filmmaker) because I mean have you BEEN to britain? The attitude the british have towards people from the subcontinent is Pathetic and offensive(to put it gently).

2. The Indian Middle class : and by this I mean the english speaking Upper caste middle class. This group  feels something akin to what white americans who see themselves as liberal feel when their prejudices are pointed out. “Aren’t we much better than two generations ago?” the argument goes. “It’s not like we don’t face  prejudice in thew western country we work in, so stop the sanctimony already” say their counterparts living and working abroad. The “cut” is more unkind for the “elites”(upper castes,) who have steadily lost political power since Independence in 1947, from government policies and demographic realities.

In other words, Danny Boyle has dropped the  film into the thick of it. I think he did this deliberately. It’s a well thought out film in this respect that does address the friction between the salaried  middle class In india and the poor and destitute. The salaried middle class have all the soccer mom values of the US republican voter, while the poor ,without a social safety net, are halfway between exploited and criminal.

The question to ask is : Is danny boyle entitled to making political statements about India? In an increasingly interconnected world, it is very difficult to see how he cannot. the difference between now and maybe 30 years ago, is that when someone makes a film like this, there is an equal platform for the people in India to talk back, about how the white british upper classes are the last ones that can take up on behalf of India’s poor.

The peacock throne and the Kohinoor diamond, Anyone?

added later: a crsory search for news articles in google reveals the poverty in india industry ‘s advocacy:

earth times

Dallas morning news

the daily telegraph(UK)

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About rameshram

Name : Ramesh Ram... Email Address : Cdrakenc@gmail.com (don't even ask) Blog: (never updated) http://ramesh.journalspace.com Height/ Weight: 6'1 175 (varies between 160 and 185) Color of hair/ eyes black/ brown Bald? Nope (not yet, but give me 20 years.) Interests: Film (Bollywood/international indie), Travel (Germany/Japan/Central America/Sout/east/west Asia/ Northern Africa), Gizmo geek, Clubbing... What do I like in a good movie?: Women, Music, Auters, Special effects, Style. What do I like in a bad movie?: Women, Music, Auters, Special effects, Style. Favorite Critic: International: Bazin Domestic: J Hobermann Indian : me. (noone else comes close ...India or here..) Best quality: Humility. Outspokenness. Warmth Worst quality: Intolerence Favorite color : Yellow Black Blue Favorite Perfume : men: Grey Flannel(Geoffery Beene) Women: Celine dion: Obsession Boxers / briefs : Boxers Did I inhale: And how! Author: Marquiz, Rushdie, Murakami, Jong Last Book: The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton, Catherine A. Liszt Music : Patricia Kass, Alejandro Sanz,Nina Simone, Amir Diab Sports person: uh..me? What am I usually in : White briefs and tees. Chianti or Burgandy: Chianti Food: French Japanese(street/fast food). Saw and liked: No Country for old men, Lust Caution Saw and disliked: Nishabd Didnt see: Aaja Nach le. Call me: Write me first.
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16 Responses to Editorial : Slumdog Millionaire and the question of Indian poverty art

  1. Shali says:

    I don’t think Danny Boyle is making a political statement about Indian poverty at all. He didn’t write the script, he directed the movie. Book was by an Indian, don’t forget.
    Indians need to stop having this knee-jerk reaction when someone else makes movies about us. I saw a review in Rediff that said there was poverty in New York etc. Who says there isn’t.
    Slumdog” could be set anywhere in the world. It just so happens to be in India. It could’ve been in Brazil and been another “City of God.”

  2. rameshram says:

    How do you know danny boyle is not making a political statement? did he deny that his film was very political in nature?

    Also I think The reactions of Indians is far from knee jerk. I think there is sufficient ground to believe that there are films that pander to the “Poverty in India” industry.
    (remember there was an Oscar winner about children of prostitutes learning to take pictures a couple of years ago?)

    You are doing a disservice to everyone by trivializing the magnitude of the objection that Indians have to such poverty art.(by quoting the fact that it is based on an Indian’s book, come on shali! how come Boyle didn’t pick “An Equal Music” to make a film on?)

    The objections do have meat to them , just as there is good reason for filmmakers like Boyle making films about the poverty they see. In India or othervice.

  3. Broomstick says:

    …. so i take it that you didn’t like Slumdog Millionaire, then.

  4. rameshram says:

    no.

    you can’t take it as so.

    This editorial merely documents issues i see with marketing the flm in the indian mass market

  5. D says:

    @shali…. do you think the movie would have got the same admiration had it been made by an indian filmaker …

    its a stupid but well made movie.

    Everybody specially in the west liked this movie because it potrays india in a negative way as a poor nation…

    remember white tiger…anything thats makes india look bad gets an award

    if poverty isa reality then so is india’s progress, rich and middle class…1 lakh car , chandrayan and lot of other stuff like that..but western people cant digest that…they will never talk about all this in their movies..

    Indian areALWAYS made fun of in a western movie..ALWAYS!!!

    that just show how jealous they are of our progress.

    • maddy says:

      Thats ridiculous.
      You really need to change our views.
      More indians are poor than rich.Why do you even care about what west thinks about us?There is lot more that need to be done.

      And i dont see any reason why west would be jealous of India.

  6. rameshram says:

    it WAS made by an indian filmmaker. both the original and this remake…

  7. D says:

    aaa no it isnt ….”Slumdog Millionaire is a 2008 British drama film directed by Danny Boyle and written by Simon Beaufoy.”

    if you are talking about loveleen tondon then she is only the co director mainly bcoz it was shot in india

  8. rameshram says:

    yes.. I meant Split wide open , which was directed by dev benegal (slumdog has plot and visual similarities to SWO),and a much appreciated film, and this one, whose indian unit was headed by loveleen tandan, who was responsible for giving it much of the local color..

  9. Mumbai says:

    I saw Slumdog Millionaire today. Boyle has really done a good job with this movie. While the movie deals with the gory details of the underbelly of Mumbai, it doesnt really leave you with a sick feeling. The story feels like a commentary and at the end you just feel good about the whole movie. Very well done I must say.

    The music score by Rehman is amazing, the actors who played junior Jamal and Salim were the real stars. They were simply too good. Freida Pinto had just 15 mins of screen presence. I think she was overhyped.

  10. rameshram says:

    thank you

    mumbai and others from india, please post about audience reactions and word of mouth on slumdog’s india release.

    thanks.

  11. sirensongs says:

    “the argument goes, ‘stop lecturing us.'”….
    No doubt this is the argument; but it strikes me as singularly solipsistic to assume that because a film is made about “You,” it is aimed at educating “you” (or anyone for that matter).

  12. Pingback: Southern Slumdog

  13. rameshram says:

    sirens,

    i have not evaluated any of the arguments for truth value, but this one does not strike me as solipsist at all. poverty art , in general and slumdog in particular are to some extent, lectures to people watching. to deny this is to deny an essential puropse of their making.

    what is debatable is whether the film was made to lecture to the indian film industry or the indian middle class, and here opinions can vary. I merely see this as danny boyle seeing a market was not catered to, rushed in to entreatain it with a story of the poor. Now if this causes people to take offense, that is the way it is. their arguments cannot become invalid or solipsist just because they are not mature enough to let boyle have his way.

  14. AnupNandi says:

    main thing that matters is “what we learnt from that movie”….i think that there is no place in this world which is complete in every sense…every country has its own drawbacks….i think this movie simply brought the conditions of slums to limelight….and until and unless u r going to identify the problem how can u eradicate it…..so i think ..whether director is Danny Boyle or any other Indian….what matters more…is awareness of people after seeing the movie..

  15. Karigai says:

    ROFLMAO @ your “Thou shalt NOT put words into my mouth” (dare I say ‘knee jerk’) response to Broomstick.

    BTW, I watched Dev Benegal’s “Road, Movie” two weeks back and quite liked it (as a sort of mood piece). And oh, sorry, since I don’t consume alcohol, I was unable to act upon your earlier suggestion (to someone) to treat the movie as a drinking-game time pass. (But to my credit, I was doing dishes while watching it.) 🙂

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