Nothing sells like poverty

Published March 1, 2009

THE night before the Oscars, in India we were re-enacting the last few scenes of Slumdog Millionaire. The ones in which vast crowds of people (poor people) who have nothing to do with the game show, gather in their thousands in their slums and shanty towns to see if Jamal Malik will win. Oh, and he did. He did. So now everyone, including the Congress Party is taking credit for the Oscars that Slumdog won (!)

It claims that instead of India Shining, it has presided over India 'Achieving'. Achieving what? In the case of Slumdog, India's greatest contribution, certainly our political parties greatest contribution, is providing an authentic, magnificent backdrop of epic poverty, brutality and violence for an Oscar winning film to be shot in.

So now that too has become an achievement? Something to be celebrated? Something for us all to feel good about? Honestly, it's beyond farce. And here's the rub Slumdog Millionaire allows real life villains to take credit for its cinematic achievements, because it lets them off the hook. It points no fingers, it holds nobody responsible. Everyone can feel good. That's what I feel bad about.

So that's about what's not in the film. About what's in it - I thought it was nicely shot. But beyond that what can I say more than that it is a wonderful illustration of that old adage There's

a lot of money in poverty. The debate around it has been framed (and this helps the film in its multi-million dollar promotion drive) in absurd terms On the one hand we have the old 'patriots' parroting the old “it doesn't show India in a Proper Light' type of nonsense (but even they've been won over now, by the Viagra of success). On the other hand there are those who say that it is a brave film that is not scared to plumb the depths of India 'Not-shining'. Slumdog Millionaire does not puncture the myth of “India shining', far from it. It just turns India 'not-shining' into another glitzy item in the supermarket. As a film it has none of the panache, the politics, the texture the humour, and the confidence that both the director and the writer bring to their other work. It really doesn't deserve the passion and attention we are lavishing on it. It's a silly screenplay, the dialogue was embarrassing — which surprised me because I loved The Full Monty (written by the same script writer.)

The stockpiling of standard , clichéd, horrors in Slumdog are, I think, meant to be a sort of version of Alice in Wonderland — Jamal in Horror land. It doesn't work except to trivialize what really goes on here. The villains who kidnap and maim children and sell them into brothels reminded me of Glen Close in 101 Dalmations.

Politically the movie de-contextualizes poverty and by making poverty an epic prop, it dissociates poverty from the poor. It makes India's poverty a landscape, like a desert, or a mountain range, or an exotic beach- god-given, not man made. So while the camera swoops around in it lovingly, the filmmakers are more pickly about the creatures that inhabit this landscape. To have cast a poor man and a poor girl, who looked remotely as though they had grown up in the slums, battered, malnourished, marked by what they'd been through, wouldn't have been attractive enough. So they cast an Indian model and a British boy. The torture scene in the cop station was insulting. The cultural confidence emanating from the obviously British 'slumdog' completely cowed the obviously Indian cop, even though the cop was supposedly torturing the slumdog. The brown skin the two share is too thin to hide a lot of other things that push through it. It wasn't a case of bad acting, it was a case of the PH balance being wrong. It was like watching black kids in a Chicago slum speaking in Yale accents. Many of the signals the film sent out were similarly scrambled. It made many Indians feel as though they were speeding on a highway full of potholes. I am not making a case for verisimilitude, or that it shouldn't have been in English, or suggesting anything as absurd as 'outsiders can never understand India.' I think plenty of Indian filmmakers fall into the same trap. I also think that plenty of Indian filmmakers have done this story much much better. It's not surprising that Christian Colson, head of Celedor (producers of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?), won the Oscar for the best film producer — that's what Slumdog Millionaire is selling - the cheapest version of the Great Capitalist dream in which politics is replaced by a game show, a lottery in which the dreams of one person come true while in the process the dreams of millions of others are usurped, immobilizing them with the drug of impossible hope (work hard, be good, with a little bit of luck you could be a millionaire.)

The pundits say that the appeal lies in the fact that while in the West for many people riches are turning to rags, the rags to riches story is giving people something to hold on to. Scary thought. Hope, surely, should be made of tougher stuff. Poor Oscars. Still, I guess it could have been worse — what if the film that won had been a film like Guru — that chilling film celebrating the rise of the Ambanis. That would have taught us whiners and complainers a lesson or two. No?



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