In the article Slumdog Millionaire and the Troubled Place of Cinema and Nation, Nadine Chan discusses how the rag-to-riches romance, Slumdog Millionaire has more often than not been labeled as “poverty porn” due to the way it exploits a poverty stricken Mumbai society and promotes “slum tourism”. While some critics accuse the film of exploiting western perceptions of India, with its depictions of impoverished slums ruled by gangsters, as well as other unwholesome characters, others claim that the film neither shows negativity towards the slums nor shows the slum dwellers as people of sorrow. Rather, it shows a story of hope and survival. My own view is with the latter of both arguments. Slumdog Millionaire’s depiction of the dirt and filth of Mumbai is the unfortunate reality of the city and the film was meant to be a feel-good fairytale, which can be supported by the dance sequence at the end; a tribute to all Bollywood epics.
We all know that Slumdog Millionaire is no stereotypical Bollywood Epic. In fact, most Bollywood movies are often criticized for their inaccurateness. Anurag Kashyap, and Indian filmmaker states that “Bollywood is to blame for India's inability to deal with reality.” He goes on by saying “Indian films have this obsession with hygienic clean spaces, even though the country's not so clean," says Anurag Kashyap. "They're either shot in the studios or shot in London, in America, in Switzerland – clean places. Everywhere except India." In his film, Gangs of Wasseypur he shows a realistic depiction of Indian slums, and actually filmed in an Indian city. There are no song-and-dance numbers, no muscular heroes, no leering bad guys or compliant females, and no luxury brands. Gangs of Wasseypur is carried along by relentless narrative momentum, fluid camerawork and a throbbing soundtrack. It's an exhilarating and realistic ride. "All those pseudo-Hollywood movies set nowhere, with everybody good looking and having great physique – that's not working any more," he says.
Those who are against the film and consider it offensive have made some very strong claims. For example, management consultant and film producer Arindam Chaudhuri wrote on his blog, “‘Slumdog’ is just every scrap of dirt picked up from every corner and piled up together to try and hit back at the growing might of India. And the awards almost seem like a sadistic effort to show the world — look we knew that this was India, and these are the slumdogs we are outsourcing our jobs to,” Chaudhuri then continues by saying the film “stinks of racial arrogance” and is designed to undermine India’s inevitable rise on the world stage. Despite this, the unfortunate reality is that India does face these tragedies seen in the film. Must Danny Boyle apologize for showing an unfortunate truth? Can we no longer tolerate the reality around us? It may not be our reality, but it is no doubt a reality that is around us.
Many claimed that the film misinterprets and exaggerates the truth of what goes on in India, yet what happens in this movie is actually exposing the truth behind this notion of “Incredible India”. According to Indian film expert Rochona Majumdar, “A lot of people felt it was bashing India, but I disagree…We’re too quick to celebrate ‘Incredible India’…But there is an underbelly. To say we don’t have problems is absurd.” Danny Boyle does a wonderful job of showing this subtly to the audience in the scene where Jamal pretends to be a tour guide. When Jamal leads the tourists back to their car, they discover that it had been stripped clean of its tires, engine and other components. The furious driver beats and kicks Jamal, to the horror of the tourists. Jamal retorts, “You want to see a bit of real India? Here it is.” Boyle is showing the audience what really goes on in the under belly of India. In an interview with Dave Stravers from Mission India, he explains the reality of the poor conditions. "People in the slums have a few square feet of space, and sometimes a roof over their heads. [There is] no running water and no toilet facilities whatsoever, not even a hole in the ground. Usually their work is day by day. They'll go stand on a street corner or a place where some people come to hire day laborers, and they typically earn anywhere from 50 cents a day to two dollars a day, depending on the job.
Calling Slumdog Millionaire a “poverty porn” is farfetched. There are documentaries that show much worse tragedy much like Lucy Walker's Waste Land which has in fact been dubbed the Slumdog Millionaire of documentaries. Waste Land tells the story of the Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz as he creates art out of garbage at the world's largest landfill on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, collaborating with the trash pickers (catadores) who work there. The area in the film is described as the conditions being squalid, and the smell disgusting. So why is Waste Land not labeled “poverty porn”? The big difference between a documentary and Slumdog Millionaire could be that Slumdog Millionaire is a documentary with great entertainment value and a story told well. It is a story with some truth. From these claims it is amazing that we do not harass films that are “based” on true stories.
Another issue that many in India are offended by is the fact that the creator of this film, Danny Boyle, is a foreigner. Not only is he a foreigner but he is British, and due to their not so friendly history of colonization, his opinion is not very well perceived to those in India. However, as a foreigner, Boyle was not out to bring down the country's reputation or capitalize on its socioeconomic rifts. Rather, he told a story that showed us the unfortunate truths of tragedies that not only happen in India but all over the world. Just because Boyle is a foreigner, it does not make the truth fictional.
The topic of the title of the film has also been argued. According to the article, Is ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ poverty porn? by Matthias Williams, “A group of the city’s slum dwellers, including children, protested against the word ‘dog’. A social activist filed a defamation case in Patna. And this week, hundreds of slum dwellers in Bihar’s capital ransacked a movie theatre demanding the title be changed.” Those who claim this, I believe have not understood the context in which the word was used. In the movie, the word “Slumdog” is never used as a general description of the people of the slums. It is used in a very specific setting: the angry police inspector, when he is violently interrogating the hero, Jamal, whom he suspects of cheating on the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” show, scoffs: “What can a Slumdog possibly know?” At this point in the movie, the inspector is the antagonist — certainly not a character with whom we are expected to agree. (The Real Roots of the ‘Slumdog’ Protests) What should be taken from the title, is that Jamal is portrayed as an underdog, who ultimately triumphs in this fairytale.
In her article, Nadine Chan states that: in the “First World” and “Third”, it appears that the “Third” must always bear the burden of “authentic” representation. Always crippled by a history of colonialism and marginality, the India of Slumdog Millionaire, according to the logic of such an approach, is one that constantly needs to be rescued by critics from the irreparable dangers of being “spoken for” by the dominant, imperial nation. This reading is oppressive toward the colonized subject as it forces all encounters with it to be necessarily framed within questions of representation, misrepresentation and self-representation. Despite the fact that Nadine is correct, Slumdog Millionaire is not a film that was made to solely show the horrors of the slums in India. Rather, it is a film of people from these terrible conditions rising up to build better lives for themselves. They are trying to make their lives better, they have aspirations, dreams and desires.
From the final scene in the movie, it should be obvious that this movie is a fairytale. The dance sequence gives a warm feeling as love has conquered all, and that all is good with their lives. Everyone joins them in their dance, and the audience cannot help but feel relieved that Jamal received the life he truly deserved.
This movie is not a documentary. Its goal is not to depress us, nor is it to lure us with its so-called “poverty porn”. It is a film. That is all. Not to be taken so seriously, nor is it to be considered the authority on the absolute true conditions of the slums in India. Slumdog Millionaire is simply a story about hope, survival, and of course destiny.
1. Slumdog Millionaire and the Troubled Place of Cinema and Nation by Nadine Chan http://cinema.usc.edu/archivedassets/101/16187.pdf (SCHOLARLY ESSAY) 2. Passionate About India by Arindam Chaudhuri http://arindamchaudhuri.blogspot.com/ 3. Is ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ poverty porn? By Matthias Williams http://blogs.reuters.com/india/2009/01/28/is-slumdog-millionaire-poverty-porn