Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Response to the Backlash Against 'Slumdog Millionaire'

(This is an old piece of writing that I am re-posting on Cactus Chronicles:)

I saw the movie in November in a small theatre that usually screens only indie films, and I enjoyed it on many levels. Weeks later, when it had hit the mainstream theatres and everybody had an opinion on it, I was surprised that there was so much of negativity surrounding the movie. To me it was a film that was essentially about determination and a boy holding on to the hope of finding his love, in a setting of poverty and squalour.

My interest in this issue is on 2 levels: As an aspiring writer, it alarms me that there are artistic boundaries that cannot be crossed in peoples' opinions. Vikas Swarup evidently crossed those, and Danny Boyle and his crew skillfully gave us a collective imagination of those boundaries. 
Secondly, the fact that a movie can be so polarizing, makes me want to dig deeper into the reasons why. If we begin with the assumption that everybody is "against" poverty and the abuse of children, how then did some people thoroughly enjoy the movie (like I did), and some think it vile and an example of 'poverty pornography', a term vile in itself?

So for those of you who think that poverty was somehow exploited in the movie/book: Are you now going to decry all books in which the protagonist is in a deprived setting? A good number of classics will have to be pulled off the shelves. You can begin with Oliver Twist! 

You must also not watch crime scene dramas. They too are exploitative for the following reasons: They are not realistic in that not all murders are solved. There are a multitude of unsolved crimes, with murderers and rapists still at large. Families are still waiting for children, wives, husbands, brothers, daughters who will never return home. The entertainment industry capitalizes on social ills to come up with plots that captivate the average viewer looking for a rush of adrenalin while sitting on his couch. Lets call it Adrenalin-rush pornography!! So the next time your favourite Crime Scene Drama comes on, turn the TV off!

The same applies to Medical Dramas. There are enough uninsured people in the US, many of them children, to warrant the application of the same sentiments underlying the uproar against Slumdog. Medical dramas tend to paint a healthier picture of things, no pun intended. They don't always show the number of families who enter hospitals with their loved ones, but leave without them, due to incurable disease, or even negligence. They don't show the thousands of patients who can't afford the treatment they need. They only show what will fly in the name of entertainment. And if you have thought this through carefully, you should know that the Television Industry exploits! So the next time your favourite doctor flashes his/her smile on your television screen, switch to the History Channel. That's your safest bet!!

And if your idea of entertainment is to step away from reality, and only watch movies that portray an India that has been filmed on the hillsides of the Alps, where the streets have no beggars, (much less blinded or mutilated ones), that's fine - because that IS the purpose of entertainment - to get away from the grimness of reality for a few hours. But don't deny a film the power to entertain via realism. Or magical realism. 

Satyajit Ray was criticized by some for his style of realism and for "exporting poverty" to the west. If you are a part of that bitter bandwagon that thinks that realism panders to the tastes of the west, and that escapism and posturing a la Bollywood is the only Indian way of filmmaking, you are wrong. Just because Bollywood churns out more movies in numbers, their style isn't intrinsically authentic. It's time that realism too be recognized as an authentic style of (Indian) film-making, and that any deviation from the Bollywood formula not be looked upon as a way to just get "creative Global recognition" as suggested by Bollywood Bigwigs!

I think it is unfortunate that the name Slumdog has been received badly in India and by Indians abroad. A term coined by Simon Beaufoy, and an amalgam of underdog and slum, ironically, it has been lost on the citizens of the land of Sanskrit, known for its sandhis. That the residents of Dharavi and other slums are sensitive to the use of a word that is not in employment by the locals to refer to themselves, is understandable. But Slumdog Millionaire is not an expose on Dharavi, nor is it a documentary. It is fiction! And if writers, artists, directors are to work within boundaries that are so subjective, then that is equivalent to creative censorship.

What is it about poverty that makes a certain proportion of Indians want to shoot the messenger? Especially if he's white! I think what is most offensive about Slumdog Millionaire is not its employment of a setting of utter squalour, but the reaction of people to it. Who having spent any extended time in India can deny having seen not just beggars on the street, but sometimes blind or mutilated ones? I was happy that the film provided me with plausible answers to questions that have crossed my mind during some point in my life encountering a scarred beggar: Have they been maimed to garner extra sympathy and bring in more cash while begging? 

So instead of being outraged that the movie was set in a slum and showed the seamier side of India as a part of the plot, be outraged that such things exist!


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