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BY MITU SENGUPTA
Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is one of the most celebrated films in recent times. The cinematically spectacular film tells the rags-to-rajah story of a young, love-struck Indian boy, Jamal, who, with a little help from “destiny,” succeeds in overcoming his wretched beginnings in Mumbai’s squalid slums. Riding on a wave of rave reviews, Slumdog is now poised to win Hollywood’s highest honour, the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Nabbing this honour, if it indeed does so during Sunday’s Oscar ceremony, would probably add some US$100 million to Slumdog‘s box-office takings, as Oscar wins usually do. It will also further enhance the film’s already-robust 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 are promoting it) not as an entertaining work of fiction, but as a powerful piece of advocacy. Nothing could be more worrying, since Slumdog Millionaire, despite all the hype to the contrary, delivers a deeply disempowering narrative about the poor, which undermines, if not totally negates, its apparent message of social justice.
Many Indians are angered by Slumdog because it tarnishes their perception of their country as a rising economic power and the Third World’s beacon of democracy. India’s English-language papers, read by its middle classes, have carried bristling reviews of the film that convey an acute sense of wounded national pride. While understandable, these are 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, indeed, 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 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, 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. Nonetheless, the real problem with Slumdog is not its shallow, impressionistic portrayal of poverty.
The film’s real problem is that it grossly minimizes the capabilities, resourcefulness and even the basic humanity of India’s slum-dwellers. It is no secret that large chunks of Slumdog are 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, covering 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 and $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 to tackle thorny 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, along with the simple fact that these communities, despite their grinding poverty, have rich, valuable lives, a wealth of internal resources, and a strong tradition of resistance.
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 undemocratic 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 notion 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-centred businesses. If forced to move into congested high-rises, for example, the slum’s potters and biscuit-makers, large numbers of who are women, will lose the space they need to dry their wares. For the government, however, 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, “destiny.” Is it also “destiny,” 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 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 and ultimately sham statement on social justice for those who are not.
Mitu Sengupta is Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University. She has also worked as a consultant for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and as an editorial writer in New Delhi, India.