Ever since the movie Slumdog Millionaire was first released, many people have asked me the question, “What did you think of it?”
And I have sincerely answered, “I liked it.”
Alas, an Indian guy at work got outraged at my “thumbs up” for the movie. “Not one adult character was shown in a positive light,” he fumed, “Everyone was just bad.” Before he could go on a predictable rant about the racism implicit in such stark depiction of India’s poverty, I cut him off with a simple, “I don’t agree with you.”
I did not really want to bother to explain that political correctness did not enter into my assessment of the movie. But I was tempted to ask, “So how many beggars have you helped on the streets of Kolkata?”
I also did not take the trouble to say that I like movies for all sorts of reasons. Slumdog was, like my coworker, predictable, but its unusual intensity, speedy sequences choreographed to rhythmic music, breathless cinematography, and a very sad story, put me so much on the edge of my seat that for once in my life I was hoping for a happy ending.
But more importantly, I liked the movie because it did not sugarcoat India’s poverty with the usual tamarind-mango-henna flavoring used in so much of Indian middle class fiction written by hyphenated and non-hyphenated desis.
Both Amitabh Bachchan and Salman Rushdie have criticized the movie; the former for revealing India in a less than favorable light, the latter for its clichéd plot. I suspect the real reasons behind Amitabh’s dislike for the movie are that (a) he prefers the Bollywood version of poverty which has never included an on-screen latrine and (b) he likes Indian movies with himself as their star. As for guessing what motivates Rushdie, who knows.
I missed the entire buzz prior to the Oscars and watched only a part of the show in Spanish simultaneous translation, sitting in a seedy hotel room in Guatemala, so it took me weeks to discover the real life drama that was happening to the child stars of the movie.
And now I wonder, should Danny Boyle have used professional actors rather than children of the slum? It is hard to answer that question, knowing that without Slumdog, the movie’s child stars, Rubiana Ali and Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, would have languished in poverty anyway. At least the movie has given them a chance to rise out of it. The sad thing though, is that it is only a chance and a slim one at that.
For, unfortunately, life is now uncannily mirroring the movie. In an ironic twist, the film that exposes the exploitation of children has ended up exploiting its child stars. It is sad that unlike the children in the movie, the real life child actors have not been guaranteed a happy ending by its director Danny Boyle. They may or may not have a trust fund. They may or may not have a home. They may or may not get an education. But the movie, as of May, 2009, was reported to have made $326 million at the box office. Which makes one wonder; why don’t the children get a good lawyer and claim a share of the profits the movie has made?
This sad saga has demonstrated that sixty years after the end of colonization, the colonial mentality lingers, both in the minds of the colonizers as well as the minds of the colonized. As many experts have pointed out, the centuries-long colonial experiment of the British Empire would not have been successful without the mindsets of the rulers and the ruled. Literature has long demonstrated this premise, starting with E.M.
Forster’s A Passage To India, which portrayed the classic dark male as a colonial victim. Since then, television productions like Jewel In The Crown, while criticizing colonialism, have also depicted the colonized as shadowy figures, serving their English masters, so that the very act of subjugation and marginalization berated in the story is mirrored in its production, in an odd phenomenon I will call the self-fulfillment syndrome.
Slumdog has shed a long-overdue light on the poverty and the slums of India, which are a disgrace.
Traveling to other third world countries, I have been unable to find the kind of degradation of the human condition that is clearly visible on the streets of India. Yet, most middle and upper class Indians have blinders on; they don’t see the mass of humanity literally suffering at their feet even as property barons continue to exploit precious land to line their pockets and manage to deny the poor basic amenities like roofs over their heads.
The last straw for me was the recent news that Rubiana Ali’s autobiography will soon be peddled, ghost-written no doubt, to make further millions for some globalized business somewhere.
It is not too late to remedy the situation. The producers of the movie would seem more genuine if they revealed what exactly they paid the children, how much they have put in trust funds, and how they plan to look after the children’s interests. And given the millions that Slumdog continues to rake in, it would seem reasonable for the producers to do something long lasting such as starting a movement to remove people out of the slums and eradicate poverty.
If they don’t take such steps, I am afraid the child stars of Slumdog will always be remembered as “Slumdog’s millionaire-makers,” an epithet that would not reflect positively on Danny Boyle or Fox Searchlight Pictures.