“Slumdog Millionaire distorts Indian reality, conceals India’s prosperity” screams a front-page headline in the Organiser, mouthpiece of the fundamentalist Hindu organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
“The story…encapsulates almost all the dirt and squalor that one could conjure up in the slums of Mumbai," fumes the RSS writer. "Eyes being gouged out of young children who are introduced into beggary, children dipping into sewage tanks and garrulous prostitutes in dingy rooms lining both sides of narrow lanes all make up for picture postcards of Mumbai slums.”
Triumphant on the back of five Critics' Choice Awards, four Golden Globes and seven BAFTA Awards, as well as nominations for ten Academy Awards, Slumdog Millionaire is causing ripples in Indian society. A rags-to-riches yarn that generally tends to capture the imagination, it has quite a few detractors on home turf. The film puts a modern spin on the familiar story of the underdog who manages to emerge from poverty and make a new life for himself. Directed by Danny Boyle, a Briton, and Loveleen Tandan, an Indian national, Slumdog is set in the Dharavi of Mumbai, the megacity which is India’s financial hub, and begins with some torture scenes that, strangely, result from a victory on a television game show.
Through a stroke of luck, Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a poor, uneducated boy from Dharavi, appears in the wildly popular Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. He is well on his way to winning millions of rupees but the producers find it implausible that a young man who grew up in the slums and now works in a call centre is capable of answering the show’s questions. They conclude that this “slumdog” must be cheating and decide to extract the truth from him by means of cruel and unusual punishment. It is via this interrogation process that Jamal recounts his life story, and in so doing refutes the charges brought against him.
A soundtrack composed by A. R. Rahman does well in adding to the enjoyment of the film. Rahman now has the distinction of being the first Indian to win the Golden Globe for Best Original Soundtrack and has also been nominated for three Oscars.
Exploitation — or a plug for India’s poor?
A couple of the sequences of this movie were shot at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (or CST, formerly called the Victoria Terminus Station), a scene of the terrorist attack that captured world attention last November 26th. Prior to that date, Slumdog had been seen at a couple film festivals and had a limited North American release. It was after its general release in January that the film catapulted into the public consciousness — cashing in, some critics imply, on the tragedy of the Mumbai massacre.
Exploitation of India’s weaknesses has been the theme of much criticism. “The whole build-up of hype around the movie reminds one of the new-found appreciation of Miss World and Miss Universe organisers towards Indian beauty after our economy was liberalized to allow international cosmetic giants to sell their wares in India," says the report in Organiser. "The idea is that Indian squalor sells in the western world, and spins money.”
The film has not gone down too well with some residents of Dharavi, either. On January 22nd, about 40 representatives protested outside the Mumbai home of actor Anil Kapoor, who plays a leading role in the film. The protesters held banners reading, "I Am Not a Dog" — referring to the film's in-your-face title — and, "Poverty for Sale". Two days earlier a slum leader in the central Indian city of Patna took the Indian cast and crew of the film to court for allegedly offending slum dwellers by the pejorative title. He said that he didn't expect any better of the British people associated with the film, because their ancestors called Indians "dogs" anyway, but that the Indians involved should have known better.
According to noted human rights defender, Dr Lenin Raghuvanshi, director of the People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR), the movie has highlighted the contradictions in Indian society. “Slumdog aptly mirrors the gap between the poor rich and has highlighted the pitiable conditions slum dwellers and their children,” he says.
Raghuvanshi, who was awarded the 2007 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights, told MercatorNet that this film is creating global awareness of the reality of poverty and the disparities which inevitably widen as India goes one-sidedly for economic growth. “This film is being denounced by certain segments of people who want to maintain the status quo in society, and do not want to highlight the pathetic conditions of the poor and the marginalized communities,” he says. “When such films are viewed on an international stage, then our policy makers will wake up to the reality of the poor and backward classes in society.”
Dharavi: the reality
Other critics are riled by Dharavi’s undeserved reputation as Asia’s largest slum. It is not really a slum, they say. It is a squatter settlement where nearly every household has some business. It is a thriving, bustling place with entrepreneurs by the hundreds of thousands. Rough estimates put the number of commercial and residential structures at around 57,000. Industries like plastic recycling, leather tanning, garment making, pottery and jewellery making co-exist in this microcosm of India.
These factories provide sustenance of a sort to the million or so people who are thought to live in Dharavi, which at 432 acres, is now prime property which even international developers are bidding to “redevelop”. The lack of basic sanitation (adequate water, toilets, drainage systems) and other amenities are merely a poor reflection on the civic authorities who have failed to provide for the community and not on the slum dwellers themselves.
Do these criticisms resonate much with the man in the street? Probably not. What counts for most Indians is a romantic, heroic story, and on that basis they will be just as thrilled as Danny Boyle if Slumdog cleans up, as predicted, at the Academy Awards.
They will acknowledge the truth in it and shrug their shoulders at the condescension of westerners who like to feel compassionate towards the world’s poor and indignant about their exploitation. If this can be done in the comfort of a movie theatre, so much the better.
Anjalee Lewis is a freelance journalist writing from Mumbai.