Caught on film: India ‘not shining’
Arundhati Roy –
Exclusive for Dawn.com Monday, 02 Mar, 2009 11:05 AM PST
'Slumdog Millionaire' child actor Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail is served his dinner by his mother Shamim Begum, right, in his home in a slum in Bandra, suburban Mumbai, India, Thursday, Feb. 26, 2009. The child stars of the Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” have returned to India to a chaotic, but rousing, heroes' welcome, following their appearance on the red carpet at the recent Oscar ceremony, where the movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” a tale of hope amid adversity set in Mumbai, was awarded eight Oscars, including best picture and best director for Danny Boyle. – AP Photo
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 the 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 the film won!
The party 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. And 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 other than that it is a wonderful illustration of the old adage, ‘there's a lot of money in poverty’.
The debate around the film 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 line that "it doesn't show India in a Proper Light' (by now, even they’ve been won over thanks to the Viagra of success). On the other hand, there are those who say that Slumdog is a brave film that is not scared to plum 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 and 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 Horrorland’. 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 Glenn Close in 101 Dalmatians.
Politically, the film de-contextualises poverty – by making poverty an epic prop, it disassociates poverty from the poor. It makes India’s poverty a landscape, like a desert or a mountain range, an exotic beach, god-given, not man-made. So while the camera swoops around in it lovingly, the filmmakers are more picky 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, malnutritioned, 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 that 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 arguing that it should not 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 of the film 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 like Guru – that chilling film celebrating the rise of the Ambanis. That would have taught us whiners and complainers a lesson or two. No?