The Bigger Picture


Slumdog Millionaire

UK, 2008

directed by Danny Boyle


More than once, I have somehow found myself in the middle of a Slumdog argument. Inevitably the conversation starts with “what an incredible Oscar win for the year’s most depressing feel-good story.” Within minutes, I am knee-deep in a philosophical argument as to the responsibility of Danny Boyle, the film’s British director, to provide better compensation and, particularly, housing to Slumdog Millionaire’s young stars. I completely understand the concern of those who make this argument. It is the typical liberal, politically conscious reaction to defend the young stars’ rights. What gives a white British man the right to set-up a trust fund for his young Indian slum-dwelling stars, with the condition that they will only receive their money when they are 18 years old and finished with school? Yes, it all seems very nice, but who gives him the right to decide how and when these now-famous young Mumbaikers can spend their share of the movie’s profits? Many of my friends and colleagues were reacting to the media’s portrayal of the situation. The Western media created a spectacle as to why it took Boyle so long to “save” the children from the slums. A BBC article from May 20, 2009, entitled “Slumdog star’s father ‘injured,’” describes the demolition of a young star’s home in the slums. It emphasizes the accused smacking of the youth’s father by an Indian cop and refers to Boyle’s responsibility by stating, “Slumdog director Danny Boyle has strongly denied claims of exploitation.” Meanwhile, the Indian media was discussing another issue—what does 2009’s big Oscar win for Slumdog Millionaire mean for India? How does the representation of poverty in India affect how the rest of the world perceives and, in turn, interacts with India, which is often referred to as an emerging power in the media?

In order for Westerners to fully investigate the complexity of the situation, we must first try to understand the bigger picture. The word slum connotes a scary, filthy place where no one in their right mind would ever want to live. Cidade de Deus (City of God) (2002), a film that takes place in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, serves as another cultural interpretation of the slum. It portrays a life of extreme poverty of Brazil’s slum children—one ridden with gun violence and sexual exploitation. Yet, Indian slums function very differently to those in Latin America. While many popular representations of slums are based in reality, media interpretation of the slum itself has been hyperbolic.

I spent almost every day of the summer of 2007 working in various slums around Mumbai—formerly known as Bombay—and meeting the residents, who warmly welcomed me to their home. In reality, each slum functions as a small village in the middle of the city. Even the largest slum in Mumbai, Dharavi, is a self-contained network of businesses and community centers. Unlike in the favelas or in American ghettos, gun violence is minimal and limited to gang conflicts. Moreover, housing is not free. The residents of the slums pay rent and lovingly maintain their homes, some of which have been there for decades. Much of the housing is constructed with relatively solid materials, unlike the “temporary shelter made up of plastic sheets over bamboo sticks,” as the Prachi Pinglay describes in the previously cited BBC article. The residents all know and rely on each other for specialized tasks, like running the community gym or selling produce on the main avenue. The slums function like any other neighborhood. Yet, it is their illegality that sets the slums apart from other communities. Unlike many developing nations, India does not recognize squatters’ rights. Because the housing is deemed illegal, the government does not have to provide public services, such as indoor plumbing or waste management. Hence, the slums become filthy. Flies gather on looming trash piles. There is a gleaming absence of functioning toilets. Many of the women, practicing Victorian-era modesty in a post-colonial culture, wait to relieve their basic bodily functions until dark.  

Perhaps the most important point of contention is that the government can confiscate such land without providing proper compensation. Imagine living in your neighborhood for thirty years and paying your rent or mortgage religiously. One day, the government decides that it needs more space for urban development—such as the expansion of the airport that serves as your slum’s backyard. Then one morning, bulldozers appear and raze your entire town. This actually happened during my summer-long stay in Mumbai.

Nevertheless, when the government does try to relocate slum residents, from their intricately connected communities to sterile high-rises, the transition is difficult. Housing is so scarce in Mumbai that newly available housing is sometimes miles away from the homes that people have lived in their whole lives. New apartments can feel isolating and lonely. Vital communal connections become lost. Some even choose community over modernity. If given the option, some elect to stay in the slums. Yet, despite these difficult transitions, many desire a secure and comfortable home, one that is protected from the wrath of a bulldozer. 

This brings us back to the controversy over the Jai Ho Trust fund set-up by Danny Boyle and the producers of Slumdog Millionaire. Why not just give the young stars their money up front? What makes Danny Boyle so sagacious that he feels comfortable attaching strings to earned income, especially when such conditions do not exist with the other, more seasoned actors? After a summer of living in Mumbai, interacting with the Indians on the streets, and making friends with the street children, I realize that Boyle might actually have a point. With the money locked in a trust, it is protected from the bribery and corruption of the many gangs that make their homes in the slums. I have not truly experienced the underbelly of Mumbai, but I have been on the receiving end of enough gang-influenced street cons to recognize the power of the gangs of Mumbai. Moreover, a huge demand on Mumbai’s housing market competes with a scarcity of legal, affordable homes. Hence, I’ll give Danny Boyle some leeway on the time frame on finding proper housing for the young stars. Yet, the latter is based on the assumption that it was always Boyle’s intention to properly compensate the young actors for their work.  

Meanwhile, back in India, there is another set of controversies. What does the Oscar win mean for the nation? Specifically, how does the sudden success of an Indian story affect Bollywood, an industry that has been trying to achieve recognition from Hollywood and the greater Western audience for years? India has only received three nominations for Best Foreign Language Film: Mother India (1957); Salaam Bombay! (1988); Lagaan (2001).In 1992, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented infamous Bengali director of Indian art house cinema, Satyajit Ray, a lifetime achievement award—India’s only Oscar. And now, a British director takes an Indian story, executes the biggest Bollywood faux-pas—showing the “real” India, the story of over fifty percent of Mumbai’s residents—and then wins the coveted Best Picture award?! This is the moment that Bollywood has been waiting for, but at what cost?

Amulya Gopalakrishnan, contributor to The Daily Beast, explores the double-edged sword that is this year’s Oscar bonanza for India. She sees this predicament as a continuation of an old mantra, sighting the critique of Nargis, the leading actress in Mother India, toward Satyajit Ray’s portrayal of poverty in his critically acclaimed film Pather Panchali. She extends Nargis’s critique to Slumdog Millionaire: “Any dead-on depiction of real squalor is open to the accusation of ‘using India’ as eye-catching wallpaper—as romanticizing the slums for artistic gains.” This is a particularly poignant argument, one that suggests that Western directors—as well as elite Indian artists or post-colonial subjects placed in the same category, such as Ray—are only interested in exploiting peoples from developing nations in the name of artistic self-interest. While I agree that any exposition of a people has the potential to become exploitative, even from the most well intentioned directors, one could also argue that such work seeks to raise consciousness around pressing issues.

Take, for example, the documentary Born Into Brothels, which also happens to have won an Academy Award in 2004 for Best Documentary Feature. The film’s British Jewish director of Polish and Iraqi descent, Zana Briski, follows the lives of several children living in the red light district of Kolkata. Before watching the film, I had fully expected an exploitative tear-jerker—your basic cinematic gaze toward the victimized other. Instead, I watched as a Western-born woman empowered impoverished young Indians through photography. She took the time to get to know the children and their families, gifting the youth with the tools to get out of the economically depressed red light district and to potentially avoid the otherwise inevitability of “choosing” a life of sex work. The result of her efforts is a non-profit called Kids with Cameras, where the youth sell their photography for their own self-empowerment. Nonetheless, many have critiqued the documentary for its Western gaze and for its director’s imperial assumptions, particularly in regards to the perception of sex work.  

Where then does Slumdog Millionaire fit into this discourse? Bollywood megastar Amitabh Bachchan—the one for whom young Jamal jumps into the large pile of human excrement—made some controversial statements on his blog for which the Indian media later misconstrued as criticism of the film itself. During a trip to Paris, the city’s own poverty-stricken population struck a nerve with Bachchan. The experience, along with the heightening criticism toward Slumdog’s exposition of Indian poverty prompted him to make the following observations in the January 2009 entry of his blog, entitled BigB and hosted by BigAdda: “If [Slumdog Millionaire] projects India as Third World dirty under belly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky under belly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations. It’s just that the [Slumdog Millionaire] idea authored by an Indian and conceived and cinematically put together by a Westerner, gets creative [global] recognition. The other would perhaps not.” Bachchan echoes the same sentiments expressed by many of the opinion pieces in the Indian press and articulates a similar critique as that of Nargis toward Ray.

Bachchan further explores the tension between Ray’s brand of art house Indian Cinema with that of Bollywood by sighting the lack of Western attention given to the many hundreds of Bollywood blockbusters churned out of Mumbai each year. Bachchan discusses his interpretation in the same blog entry: “Ray portrayed reality. [Bollywood represents] escapism, fantasy and incredulous posturing.” Yet, it is more complicated than this. Both types of films—both Bollywood and independent—represent a particular reality of India. Bollywood comes from a North Indian context where, most of the time, Punjabis play leading roles. Bollywood, since the privatization of the Indian economy in the 1990s, has increasingly directed its films toward the Indian Diaspora. Storylines now take place overseas, or among the emerging middle class of Mumbai. In a way, the stories projected in most Bollywood films articulate a development path through which India would like to follow. Yet, despite recent economic growth and BRIC categorization, the reality of immense poverty and the disparity of wealth cannot fully be ignored. If India truly wants to achieve greater human development, ignoring such issues as those raised in Slumdog Millionaire will not propel the country toward its goal.

Still, no matter where you stand, India has finally achieved the accolades that it deserves. (well, at least from the Academy’s standpoint). This will only serve to open more doors for Bollywood, and will hopefully generate more interest in more effective modes of poverty alleviation in India.    

Bollywood, Children's Rights, India, Slums