Creating people's geographies
Following her initial impressions, Arundhati Roy has extended her review of the recent Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire:
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?
Great reaction from one of our thinking writers. Arundhati is spot on when she says Slumdog Millionaire de-contextualises by making poverty an epic prop. Thanks for publishing such great stuff.
I agree with writer’s comments on Slumdog’s quality: “It’s a silly screenplay and the dialogue was embarrassing”
Arundhati Roy is wonderful in her analysis of the film.
thank you. i was tired of the silly and self serving blather praising slumdog.
this is one plucky lady…not only does she tear the farcical Slumdog Millionaire to shreds (and rightfully so)with her reason and arguments,the words she choses couldn’t have been more accurate-after watching SDM,I just couldn’t describe to people in one simple word the dialogue,which i nonetheless felt really strongly about..ridiculous?stupid?nah..EMBARASSING is the word!one actually felt embarassed listening to the dialogue in this mediocre film…we need to hear more of her,if not more like her!
dear Arundhati Roy,
i respect and admire you, but it is a Romance after all, not a Satyajit Ray film, more a Busby Berkeley Bollywood number. I am an outsider, obviously, and only spent a month in India 20 years ago, but I think the film captured/delineated the massive, beautiful, horrible contradictions which inform your extraordinary native land.
Slumdog Millionaire is a film about the improbable, and should- to that extent- be considered proof against Arundhati Roy’s criticism that it plays loose with reality. Yes, it has an impossible optimism, and a blithe disregard for the actual experience of ugliness in life, what living surrounded by oppression can do to a person (an ugliness the film only exhibits and uses opportunistically). But that is the way it is with all fairy tales. Obstructions, in such stories, serve other uses than to obstruct; or at least for their heroes they do.
Politically offensive as this may sound, fairy tales have always had the poor as their primary audience. They demand from their audience the suspension of disbelief, complete emotional involvement, childlike credulity – all of these essential to the success of an oral performance, and usually withheld in a more literary engagement. On these terms the film has achieved unarguable success with its audience. I fear Roy is judging the film against standards alien to both oral culture (to which films belong more than they submit to a critic’s judgment) and the standards by which (even poor) audiences themselves judge a story.
But does the film really de-contextualise poverty? I thought it succeeded in showing the vulnerability of India’s poor to civil violence, in religious riots- and I was surprised to see the communities of rioters and victims in Mumbai clearly identified by religion in the film. That was a gratifying departure from the anodyne treatment this theme usually receives in Indian films. The scene in which the terrified children, hiding during the riot, suddenly find another child standing at the open doorway, this one dressed as Shiva, the God of Destruction, palm upraised in benediction, was the outstanding moment of the film for me, for its unforgettable richness of suggestion.
I enjoyed the immediacy with which the film told its story, the way it moved between past and present, with an urgency that never flagged. Also the ease with which it kept up a bilingual script. It was a wonderful departure to have a film about India without the eternal Indian Family occupying centrestage. (Might that be seen as a departure from middle-class conventions of storytelling?) I also enjoyed its treatment of character, as something established almost from infancy, notably in the characters of the two brothers, Salim and Jamal. The temperament and tendencies of a person are taken as pre-established fact, a given, and the story then is about how this personality plays out: betrays, condemns, redeems and vindicates itself. This is a characteristically non-western understanding of the human personality, or a non-modern one at any rate, which I find also in a number of autobiographies in Urdu.
Arundhati Roy is not fair to the film in conflating it with the Congress Party’s appropriation of its success. Yes, that was a disgustingly ratty, shameless act of the Congress, and Roy is absolutely right to point out the hypocrisy and crassness of it. But to hold the film/Danny Boyle responsible for that is willful misrepresentation.
I am curious as to why she never breathes notice of the fact that the story was originally a novel by an Indian writer. Vikas Swarup seems to have no problems with the treatment of his story in the film, and his novel is now cheerfully being sold under the name of the film. Does Roy’s criticism extend to the novel as well?
This is my response to the movie that I published…
Let’s celebrate the bright side of poverty
I watched Slumdog Millionaire and I felt sick. Never had so many watched so much poverty on a silver screen and felt so good about it. The deception disgusts and the irony offends—extremely.
But I apologise for this undeserved kindness. Mine is just one of too few critical voices amidst the exaggerated, ingratiating acclaim lavished on this film by fawning movie reviewers. This production presses all the right buttons so that, at the most basic levels, the façade behind the scenes goes unnoticed.
I remember sitting next to some starry-eyed teenage girls in the cinema. From their conversation I gathered they were from Mitchells Plain. “Kyk, daai Moore van India is ook nogal arm,” said one. (Look, those Indians are also poor.) That was a very telling observation, pregnant with stereotypes. The young people were fascinated by the common poverty recognised in the lives of Indian screen characters and South Africans.
See, they look like the rich Indians of Cape Town, but they are poor like us. The same filth, the same problems, just dressed up more dramatic and more gruesome for the screen. It’s India, you know, that far-off spicy place, the home of Bollywood, so we’re not very different after all. (And thank God for globalisation and the IPL. Now we can also idolise the Bollywood stars, like the other Indians.)
It’s all very nice with an oh-so-tender love story, pretty faces and the thrill of the million-in-one chance of a win for the lovely couple. Let’s forget about our own misery and let’s go hysterical, like the poor masses of Mumbai, clapping for the good fortune of Dev and Latika. Let’s forget that a worthy life has little to do with good luck, but a lot more to do with hard work. Let’s forget that we ought to be inspired to rise up and resist those who impose poverty on us, instead of being mesmerised by glamorous reality TV game shows that add an extra sparkle to the billion dollar smiles of the TV networks. Let’s forget that the mother of the main protagonist is killed in Hindu-Muslim violence and that his brother prays like a Muslim before setting off to commit the next crime for his gang boss. Let’s forget that these highly provocative themes are glossed over in the movie so fast that we remain spellbound by the dizzy hysteria of the main plot.
Reality sucks but fiction fascinates. And the farce is so well dressed up in tinsel, it won eight Oscars. Hoorah.
The key here is forgetting the reality and foregrounding the fiction. Media, in its myriad new forms, is now the means to feed the poor so they remain happy, docile consumers of perverse fiction about their own miserable lives. If they don’t have bread, give them Hollywood, Bollywood or reality TV. The masses can easily be entertained by the silver screen, at least those who can afford a movie ticket (and those who get a peek at the pirate DVDs distributed before the official release on the big screen.)
But what about the middle-class? They too need their dose of let’s-forget-the-misery-of-the-poor medication. Dubai’s the place. And this oasis rocks… sorry, used to rock. The joint with the greatest concentration of waltzing cranes on earth—30,000 or 24% of the world crane population—has come to a standstill. Someone ought to write a dirge for the idle cranes of Dubai, now stuck like thousands of poison needles into the dusky desert skyline.
The façade here is what lies behind the city that boomed out of the desert. It’s a real city, in a very real desert, built on two very notable phenomena. The first is a colossal, fragile mountain of debt within the construction sector. On February 3 Al Jazeera broadcast an interview by celebrity host Riz Khan with three experts, including Tarik Yusuf, the Dean of the Dubai School of Government. Al Jazeera deems it fit to place three guests glorifying globalisation on one panel, each of them mouthing the kind of ambivalent mumbo-jumbo on the meltdown one would expect from politicians. There is no activist or a voice critical of the reckless deregulation in Dubai and the system that sustains it. Riz Khan’s feeble questions smacks of the obsequious compliance with media owners who have a material interest in sustaining the myth of Dubai as an economic haven that will soon recover. Everything is just so hunky dory, even in a time of crisis.
Tarik Yousef first extols the merits of globalisation, which, he concedes, brought about the rapid growth through massive debt in a highly deregulated financial environment, followed by the meltdown. Then he proceeds, in response to a viewer’s question, to extol the merits of the Islamic financial system which stipulates shared profits and losses and an emphasis on equity as opposed to debt. And he does not see the fundamental contradiction. How does one reconcile rampant capitalism and financial liberalism with the disciplined financial management principles in a truly Islamic economic system?
Riz Khan and his trio then start forgetting the grim reality and foregrounding the spoiled fantasy. They forget to mention the second phenomenon that built Dubai—slave labour. An estimated one million exploited migrant workers incur grievous debt in their home countries to pay recruitment agencies up to £2,000 in fees, unaware that they are destined to become slaves in another country. They earn an average of £120 per month and are forced to work a 6-day week, for up to 12-hour shifts. Living conditions are appalling and an average of six workers are squeezed into single-room dwellings.
Of course, Riz Khan and his panelists also forget to mention that Dubai is the prostitution capital of the Islamic Middle East. Research by journalist Dan Stoenescu shows that globalisation accentuates the sex trade throughout the Middle East, which has become both an exporter and importer of prostitution. However, says Stoenescu, Saudis prefer to travel to places like Thailand where they have a reputation for generosity and violence. In March 2006 UAE police announced they had deported about 4,300 prostitutes from Dubai. The women of Eastern Europe are the carnal delicacy of choice.
The middle class in South Africa that jets off to Dubai may be aware of the emirate’s financial woes, but they remain largely ignorant of the vast gulf between the super-rich and the abject poverty of foreign workers. But it is a convenient ignorance. It is easier on the conscience to look on the bright side and console oneself that at least these foreigners have work. Back in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh they have nothing. And many are those Indians in South Africa who have relatives working as migrant labourers in the Middle East. This is not just inconvenient, it’s personal. Over 300,000 members of this foreign underclass are now jobless. Many of them had to go home empty-handed when the bubble burst. Many of them are trapped in Dubai’s debt.
The bright side of poverty shines from a distance, on silver screens, on award-winning front page photos and on high-res electronic images. There’s not much that can beat the image of abject poverty in enhancing creative and artistic value in contemporary media. It can even be dressed up in fancy language like that of this essay.
And so even the writer’s voice is trapped in this perverse celebration.
Thanks for posting your review of the movie here, Mahmood. Speaking of Dubai, you may wish to have a look at one of the articles by Johann Hari from the Independent that we posted earlier: http://pulsemedia.org/2009/04/07/the-dark-side-of-dubai/
the author salim yusufji..if u r reading this post,
i am curious if its the same yusifji who was once a teacher at the doon school, dehradun.
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the author salim yusufji..if u r reading this post,
i am curious if its the same yusifji who was once a teacher at the doon school, dehradun.
if its you, do leave me ur mail id at [email protected]
Thanks for the post. Johann Hari’s piece was an inspiration for mine.
am curious as to ms. Roy’s opinion of THE WHITE TIGER.
It is a romance for the Westerner – romancing the exotic, the poverty that no Westerner has ever lived, not even for a second, but one they suddenly dream of. It’s like Aladdin. A Disney story. Sugarcoated for the ever-so-sheltered American audience.
And Bill you were able to ascertain all this about India in a month!!! Wow.
to “Pearl” re” your comment…dear Pearl. I didn’t mean to imply that my “impressions” were any more than superficial, really, although if you have a look at my chapbook of poetry, GLIMPSES OF INDIA AND NEPAL, (Heaing Eye, London, 1988), you will aee hopefully that I wasn’t being arrogant or condescending at any rate. As I said, it was not Satyajit Ray, and I do know that poverty should not be romanticized in any way, but the pace and vibrancy provided an authentic enough illusion (24 frames per second), which is what a film is. It may have offended many, fair enough, but it wasn’t Leni Reifenstahl or anything. (bill s. @ http://www.omoopart5.blogspot.com. & etc.)
to Pearl: I did submit a reply to you on this thread of comment. Sincerely, Bill S.