Jai Ho, Cultural Voyeurism & Poverty Porn: a critique of Slumdog Millionaire

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When I was 12 years old, I embarked on a journey with my family to India to visit ‘the homeland.’ My only cultural reference point was the binary Eurocentric images portrayed in the Western media – the undeniable beauty of the Taj Mahal sharply contrasted to the despair and gloom that roamed over the slums. Seeking an authentic experience, my family stepped out of the suggested ‘tourist’ hot spots in Delhi, and took transportation with the locals. While waiting on the railway platform, I saw something that shook me.

Dim lighting hovered above the destitute surroundings creating a sombre yet picturesque scene, as if drawn with gentle strokes of conté. An unfamilair ‘dragging’ noise became augmented and my curiosity grew. I slowly turned my head. On the opposite side of the tracks, a young boy very near my age, was vigorous in attempt to walk faster, but his feet were slowing him down by dragging against the cement floor. Upon further look, this young child, had feet the size of large basketballs.

He had Lymphatic filariasis, more commonly known as Elephantiasis, a disease characterized by the thickening of the skin and tissues. I stared in horror at the freak-effects of the disease, only later to find out that more than a billion people in 80 countries are at risk, with one-third of the 120 million diagnosed cases occurring in India. This young boy was no anomaly. I looked on in shock but when he turned towards me, I had a sudden case of anxiety to avoid the most personal moment of all – looking into his eyes. This experience scarred me. Not a month has gone by since then where I haven’t thought about what I saw that day.

Welcome to the real  India.

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“The American Dream”

Just two years ago, a transglobal movie with breathtaking cinematography is led by a talented director. Slumdog Millionaire is born. The 2008 British film and eight-time Academy Award winner has become an international sensation after racking up more than $377 million worldwide in the box office after just a $15 million dollar budget. The movie propelled the boyish-looking Dev Patel and Freida Pinto with her stunning model looks into the Hollywood (not Bollywood) limelight.

Crucial to the success, is to understand the role of the ultra-popular game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” (WWBM) in the film. WWBM’s motto proclaims that ‘anyone can become a millionaire!’ Little knowledge and some luck is required to pursue the American Dream of become wealthy. This rags-to-riches fairytale does not tell the full story though.

Stephen Winzenburg, author of A Content Analysis of ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” reveals that “in the episodes studied, 38% of the contestants went home with only $1,000, while 24% left with $32,000. Three per cent left with nothing, which means players have twice as good a chance as walking away with nothing as they do walking away with a seven-figure paycheque! Furthermore, the questions asked most involved (in sequence) language, history, then science and literature with television, movies, animals and sports coming in at the bottom. Clearly, access to higher education more often than not rewarded the contestants.

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Similarly, Slumdog Millionaire situates the chaiwalah Jamal Malik as having the ability to answer to answer every question based on life experiences. Beyond being highly improbable, several of the scenes’ context to the questions are unnecessary, bordering on forced (“Cambridge Circus is in which U.K. city?” and “Which cricketer recorded the most first-class centuries?”). Slumdog Millionaire serves as a catalyst to materialism, and even better, a tool for social mobility. “I feel it’s a wrong route,” says Lakshmi Nagaraj . “We barely get by, but the answer is education and hard work, not a quick fix.”

Plot errors continue in abundance. Sir Salman Rushdie, a famous British-Indian novelist and public intellectual, questions the reality. “The movie piles impossibility on impossibility,” questioning how Young Jamal and Salim end up at the Taj Mahal, over 1000 miles from where they were in the previous scene. Or how Salim manages to possess a weapon in India with its stringent gun laws. Or how a boy growing up in the slums speaks accented English, becoming even an articulate ‘guide’ for foreign tourists at the Taj Mahal. Even the fourth WWBM question, “Which Indian poet wrote the song ‘Darshan Do Ghanshyam,’ according to the movie? is written by Gopal Singh Nepali for the movie Narsi Bhagat (1957) and not by Surdas as suggested. Finally, WWBM in India, known as Kaun Banega Crorepati, is not telecast live.

Needless to say, holes in plots don’t necessarily make-or-break a movie – at least for this author. Though it is interesting to see how Simon Beaufoy adapted the screenplay off of the Indian Vikas Swarup’s Q and A. Many of the cultural complexities created in the book were flattened to appeal to a Western audience unfamiliar with the nation of India. The novel has several characters in the book who are homosexual, with two of them being child molesters. The main character Ram falls in love with a young prostitute named Nita yet is unable to marry her. Ram’s close friend Shankar dies from rabies, unable to afford a vaccination. A far-cry from Slumdog’s melodramatic eastern replica of a Disney movie. “The term ‘slumdog” itself is not even widely recognised in India,” says Shyamal Sengupta, film professor at the Whistling Woods International institute in Mumbai.

The Mumbai Mirror furthers this notion when it stated, “it appears to be a British invention to describe a poor Dharavi kid in a derogatory way.”

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Changing Paradigms: a call to the West

As the Westerners become attached to the emotions and principals of the movie, they become activists for the cause.

Slumdog Millionaire follows the path of other films such as “Phantom India” and “City of Joy,” where Western ideologies are seen as a cure for an Eastern malady (the latter film depicts the deceased Patrick Swayze – yes, that Dirty Dancing Patrick Swayze – on a plight to save India).

These films only re-produce tensions of cultural values and beliefs. Ten year-old star Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail was physically disciplined in public by his father, which drew a flurry of cyber-critics citing “shame on him” for the father’s reported slapping of his child. This ‘other-ing’ is problematic as it increases public scrutiny on the role of family versus state and the position of cultural ideology. (The incident is laughable considering Section 43 of the Criminal Code of Canada allows parents corporal punishment as “reasonable force” to discipline their children.)

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Furthermore, many media outlets, including the The Telegraph (U.K), focused on the poor compensation for the month-long acting work for Rubina Ali (youngest Latika – $1,000) and the aforementioned Azharuddin (youngest Salim – $2,400). Western citizens were quick to point a finger at director Danny Boyle and how the two actors did not reap the rewards from the film.  Boyle responded by doing damage control by paying for their elementary and secondary schooling covering their basic living and establishing a payment for college tuition that will be distributed to the young boy and girl “when they complete their studies.” The key component that was forgotten was that a World Bank report last year states that 75.6% of India’s population lives on less than $2 a day.

Poverty Porn7

The harshest criticism that has been directed at Slumdog Millionaire, is its ability to aestheticize poverty, often through splendid colours and motion. Jamal and Salim’s mother is horrifically murdered in front of them, small children become forcefully employed (girls into into prostitutes, boys into beggars), a young boy has his eye burnt out with acid, a man runs around while on fire, and everyone’s personal favourite, Jamal jumps into a pool of feces to get the autograph of mega-celebrity, Amitabh Bachchan. These atrocities censored the true horrors, all while Anthony Dod Mantle collected an Oscar for “Best Achievement in Cinematography.”

Endless scenes of poverty are romanticized to attract Westerners, but to Indians, these are just depictions of every-day life. “We see all this every day,” says Shikha Goyal, a Mumbai Public Relations executive. “You can’t live in Mumbai without seeing children begging at traffic lights and passing by slums on your way to work.” Ms. Goyal left halfway through the film. “There is still a fascination with seeing how we are perceived by white Westerners,” said Sengupta, the Mumbai film professor. “It’s a kind of voyeurism.” There’s another term what DNAIndia calls this: poverty porn.

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Colour and Motion

Slumdog Millionaire is justified in its portrayal of wide-stricken poverty as the World Bank reports in 2005 that India has a poverty rate of 26%. Furthermore, as reported by the Asian Development Bank, the gap between the rich and the poor is only widening – especially in Mumbai. In a city that never sleeps, you can see some of the world’s poorest in the Dharavi slums, and then across the city you can catch world-famous Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan and the aristocrats that dwell in Bandra.

However, Slumdog Millionaire’s oversimplication of the slums only reproduces the Western notion that Mumbaikars learn to accept their circumstances yet secretly pine for class mobility. Jamal and Salim laugh and play with a ball while their enduring mother does the laundry. Children smile while playing cricket on an airport strip before playing ‘tag’ with the weapon-bearing guards. The brothers are in high spirits after they knowingly swindle tourists out of clothing, objects and money. This shallow portrayal does not accurately represent the emotions and experiences felt by the poor. “These ideas, that there are still moments of joy in the slum, appeal to Western critics,” states Aseem Chhabra, a culture critic. Vikram Doctor, a columnist in India’s Economic Times, has an answer to this. “Who, after all, is interested in unremitting squalor, sameness and sadness?”

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Part of Slumdog Millionaire’s enormous success is the Western curiosity in the South Asian region. “India is the flavor of the season.” The film would have “fallen by the wayside if it had been made 20 years ago.” The critically-acclaimed 1988 film Salaam Bombay has enjoyed success in the festival and festival and ‘art-house circuit,’ but has yet to register a ripple on the mainstream audience. Bachchan, the Bollywood sensation who was referenced in the film, believes there is inherent racism in the process. In a controversial blog post, the actor who has appeared in over 140 films and was voted in 1999 as the greatest star of the millennium, wrote

11“it’s just that the SM idea authored by an Indian and conceived and cinematically put together by a Westerner, gets creative [Golden] Globe recognition. The other would perhaps not.”

Despite the backlash to Slumdog Millionaire’s back, it would not be the first story to be have draw Westerners. Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns is filled with details of rape and violence against (often helpless) women. This is a kind of pornographic voyeurism that perpetuates the myth that the Eastern way of living is savagery. The results: a bestseller and a Columbia Pictures movie in production for 2011.

 

 

“It is our destiny”

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Numerous times throughout Slumdog Millionaire, the viewer can see the intersectionality between individual perseverance, culture and the spiritual term of fate.  India is well-regarded as a religious nation, but director Danny Boyle over-dramatizes this Western perception through the actions and dialogue of the characters. Jamal Malik is seen as only-ever loving Latika since their shared childhood experiences. His abandonment of her at the train station only serves as motivation to find her and profess his love for her. Similarly, Latika is a young prostitute yet absurdly, remains a virgin because suitors cannot afford her price. She displays atypical female passivity and constantly rejects Jamal’s advances yet Jamal perseveres in the face of resistance – stereotypes of gender roles in Indian culture. Predictably, their love for each other is finally shared at a train station and through the strong Western symbol of love – sexuality. Their kiss is precluded by an imaginative dialogue:

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Jamal:  I knew you’d be watching

Latika: I thought we would meet only in death

Jamal: This is our destiny

Latika: Kiss me

Oh how romantic! This myopic view of Indian culture fails to address that identity is in a state of flux, negotiating the boundaries of what society defines as acceptable in contrast to what the individual values. (Thus, many people who claim to be ‘religious’ acknowledge that they do not agree with certain rules and values, yet still keep their decisions disclosed because of shame and guilt.)

This scene preludes one of the most notorious, if not outlandish scene of all. During the closing credits, hundreds of actors dance along to the Pussycat Dolls in Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus Station.

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“…it is written…”

Slumdog Millionaire’s bold poster delivers what it promises. In what Indian-based Counter Currents calls, an “electric, visceral, kinetic feast,” the feature is “the feel-good film of the decade!” shouts the British poster. But “Slumdog’s eventual victory comes at a price,” states Dr. Vrinda Nabar, the former chair of English at the University of Bombay University and one-time visiting professor at Northwestern University. “When the selective manipulation of Third World squalor can make for a feel-good movie in a dismal year, the global village has a long way to go.”

In some barren station with run-down facilities and a wait for a train that seems forever, a boy is waiting for someone to tell his story. But there are no cameras, no colours and certainly no twists to land this child on a gameshow. This is life.

Can you say, Jai Ho?

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One Comment to “Jai Ho, Cultural Voyeurism & Poverty Porn: a critique of Slumdog Millionaire”

  1. Loved your article! During your research did you come across why the term “Slumdog”? Totally derogatory in my opinion.

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