By Mitu Sengupta · 25 Feb 2009
Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire", perhaps one of the most celebrated films in recent times, tells the rags-to-rajah story of a love-struck Indian boy, Jamal, who, with a little help from "destiny," triumphs over his wretched beginnings in Mumbai's squalid slums. Riding on a wave of rave reviews, "Slumdog" has now won Hollywood's highest tribute, the Academy Award for Best Picture, along with seven more Oscars, including one for Best Director.
These honors will probably add some $100 million to "Slumdog's" box-office takings, as Oscar wins usually do. They will also further enhance the film's fast-growing reputation as an authentic representation of the lives of India's urban poor. So far, most of the awards collected by the film have been accepted in the name of "the children," suggesting that its own cast and crew regard it (and have relentlessly promoted it) not as a cinematically spectacular, musically rich and entertaining work of fiction, which it is, but as a powerful tool of advocacy. Nothing could be more worrying, as "Slumdog", despite all the hype to the contrary, delivers a deeply disempowering narrative about the poor that thoroughly undermines, if not totally negates, its seeming message of social justice.
"Slumdog" has angered many Indians because it tarnishes their perception of their country as a rising economic power and a beacon of democracy. India's English-language papers, read mainly by its middle classes, have carried many bristling reviews of the film that convey an acute sense of wounded national pride. While understandable, the sentiment is not defensible. Though at times embarrassingly contrived, most of the film's heartrending scenarios are inspired by a sad, but well-documented reality.
Corruption is certainly rampant among the police, and many will gladly use torture, though none is probably dim enough to target an articulate, English-speaking man who is already a rising media phenomenon. Beggar-makers do round-up abandoned children and mutilate them in order to make them more sympathetic, though it is highly improbable that any such child will ever chance upon a $100 bill, much less be capable of identifying it by touch and scent alone.
Indeed, if anything, Boyle's magical tale, with its unconvincing one-dimensional characters and absurd plot devices, greatly understates the depth of suffering among India's poor. It is near-impossible, for example, that Jamal would emerge from his ravaged life with a dewy complexion and an upper-class accent. But the real problem with "Slumdog" is neither its characterization of India as just another Third World country, nor, within this, its shallow and largely impressionistic portrayal of poverty.
The film's real problem is that it grossly minimizes the capabilities and even the basic humanity of those it so piously claims to speak for. It is no secret that much of "Slumdog" is meant to reflect life in Dharavi, the 213-hectare spread of slums at the heart of Mumbai. The film's depiction of the legendary Dharavi, which is home to some one million people, is that of a feral wasteland, with little evidence of order, community or compassion. Other than the children, the "slumdogs," no-one is even remotely well-intentioned. Hustlers, thieves, and petty warlords run amok, and even Jamal's schoolteacher, a thin, bespectacled man who introduces him to the Three Musketeers, is inexplicably callous. This is a place of evil and decay; of a raw, chaotic tribalism.
Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Dharavi teems with dynamism and creativity, and is a hub of entrepreneurial activity, in industries such as garment manufacturing, embroidery, pottery, and leather, plastics and food processing. It is estimated that the annual turnover from Dharavi's small businesses is between US$50 to $100 million. Dharavi's lanes are lined with cell-phone retailers and cybercafés, and according to surveys by Microsoft Research India, the slum's residents exhibit a remarkably high absorption of new technologies.
Governing structures and productive social relations also flourish. The slum's residents have nurtured strong collaborative networks, often across potentially volatile lines of caste and religion. Many cooperative societies work together with grassroots associations to provide residents with essential services such as basic healthcare, schooling and waste disposal, and tackle difficult issues such as child abuse and violence against women. In fact, they often compensate for the formal government's woeful inadequacy in meeting the needs of the poor.
Although it is true that these severely under-resourced self-help organizations have touched only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, it is important to acknowledge their efforts and agency, along with the simple fact that these communities, despite their grinding poverty, have valuable lives, warmth, generosity, and a resourcefulness that stretches far beyond the haphazard and purely individualistic, Darwinian sort portrayed in the film.
Indeed, the failure to recognize this fact has already led to a great deal of damage. Government bureaucrats have concocted many ham-handed, top-down plans for "developing" the slums based on the dangerous assumption that these are worthless spaces. The most recent is the "Dharavi Redevelopment Project" (DRP), which proposes to convert the slums into blocks of residential and commercial high rises. The DRP requires private developers to provide small flats (of about 250 sq. ft. each) to families that can prove they settled in Dharavi before the year 2000. In return for re-housing residents, the developers obtain construction rights in Dharavi.
The DRP is being fiercely resisted by slum residents' organizations and human rights activists, who see it an undemocratically conceived and environmentally harmful land-grab scheme (real-estate prices in Mumbai are comparable to Manhattan's).
Though perhaps better than razing the slums with bulldozers -- which is not, incidentally, an unpopular option among the city's rich – the DRP is far from a people-friendly plan. It will potentially evict some 500,000 residents who cannot legally prove that they settled in Dharavi prior to 2000, and may destroy thousands of livelihoods by rendering unviable countless household-centered businesses. If forced to move into congested high-rises, for example, the slum's potters and papad-makers, large numbers of who are women, will lose the space they need to dry their wares. For the government, however, that the DRP will "rehabilitate" Dharavi by erasing the eyesore and integrating its "problem-population" into modern, middle-class Mumbai.
It is ironic that "Slumdog", for all its righteousness of tone, shares with many Indian political and social elites a profoundly dehumanizing view of those who live and work within the country's slums. The troubling policy implications of this perspective are unmistakeably mirrored by the film. Since there are no internal resources, and none capable of constructive voice or action, all "solutions" must arrive externally.
After a harrowing life in an anarchic wilderness, salvation finally comes to Jamal, a Christ-like figure, in the form of an imported quiz-show, which he succeeds in thanks to sheer, dumb luck, or rather, because “it is written.” Is it also "written," then, that the other children depicted in the film must continue to suffer? Or must they, like the stone-faced Jamal, stoically await their own “destiny” of rescue by a foreign hand?
Indeed, while this self-billed "feel good movie of the year" may help us "feel good" that we are among the lucky ones on earth, it delivers a patronizing, colonial and ultimately sham statement on social justice for those who are not.