Monday, January 26, 2009

A few thoughts on poverty and "Slumdog"

Just watched the movie this weekend, and first things first, I thought it was an excellent piece of storytelling. Let me just say that the amount of attention it is getting is justified, and leave it at that. This is not a movie review.

A significant amount of outrage (in India) has been directed at the depiction of extreme poverty in the movie. Newspaper editorials have called it "poverty porn". And, ironically, "slum-dwellers" have held rallies protesting what they call "poverty for sale". They also don't like being referred to as "dogs". (Though it is clear that the film-makers did not mean it in a pejorative way, they should have foreseen that the title could hurt the pride of people in the 'slums'. Is it possible to make a movie about slaves in America with the N-word in the title?). Amitabh Bachan (possibly the biggest name in Indian cinema) protested the depiction of poverty in the movie, contending that it portrays a "negative image" of India.

Correct me if I am wrong, but it is the first movie in a long time (if not the first ever) that focuses on the lives of people living in India's slums. Predictably, making movies about slums is not expected to make money if the target audience is the people that some slum-dwellers encounter at traffic signals. So, few Indian directors have the motivation to make a movie about slums.

No one dares contend that what the movie depicts is anything but reality. What the movie shows, is unfortunately all to real in Mumbai's slums. Or the the slums of any city, town or village in India. Arguments that the movie exposes India's underbelly - and that you would find similar stories in other nations if you dug deep enough are probably correct. Except that you don't have to dig too deep in India. 80% of India lives on less that Rs 80 a day. 14% of India lives on Rs 20 a day. And if you earn less than Rs 20 a day, odds are you live in a slum. Therefore, at least 5-10% of India lives in slums (this could be as high as 15%). Now, let's do some math here. 5% of 1.2 Billion is 60 million. Or 8 times the size of Israel. 3 times the size of Australia. 15% of a Billion is more than half the size of the US. If slums are 15% of India's population, then India's slums alone would be the world's 6th most populated nation. India has more slum dwellers than the Population of Pakistan, if we were to take the 15% estimate.

60% of Mumbai's 22 Million are slum dwellers. Mumbai alone has almost as many slum dwellers than twice the population of the entire nation of Israel.

Now, Mr. Bachan. Underbelly. Really?

Prosperous Indians don't empathize with the plight of the slum-dwellers in India. Rich Indians have made themselves numb to poverty (or otherwise, they just can't survive with so much of it all around). People know it exists, but just cannot do anything about it. So they ignore it.

This draws a parallel to former American Vice-President's (Al Gore's) Nobel Prize winning documentary, 'An Inconvenient Truth'. Most Americans know that the planet is warming, but are just not able to do anything about it. It is still likely that Global warming will go unabated - even though a good movie was made about it. On similar lines, slum poverty in India shall continue unabated (until economics sets it right) - even though a good movie has been made about it.

If the movie's masterful humanization of the predicament of the under-privileged arouses some empathy among the more fortunate upper classes; if this movie makes extreme poverty a larger electoral issue; if this movie motivates more youngsters to dream big and work hard, then it also deserves a Nobel Peace prize.

But something tells me that once all the hype is done, it will be back to business as usual in the media. And Dharavi will still be as miserable as ever.


Jenn said...

Thanks for this post. I enjoyed "Slumdog Millionaire" but thought that they really glossed over some serious, painful and difficult issues with pacing and excellent soundtrack, as well as an expectation of a big happy ending.

The movie would have been so much more meaningful if they ended with a note that included the kind of statistics you note and provided some URLs or suggestions for how people could learn more or help with the serious problem of poverty world wide.

Anonymous said...

I had an unusual reaction to the poverty depicted in Slumdogs, which I haven't heard echo'd anywhere.

I returned from a year in India doing development research a month or two before Slumdogs was released. After seeing the movie with a few friends, I was surprised at how shocked everyone was at the depictions of poverty. I suppose that a year in India had desensitized me to some degree, but there's more to it than that. I thought the movie was remarkable in the degree to which it showed the agency of the poor, and the degree to which they were not pure victims (an image I think westerners are often exposed to). To me, it was a very empowering image of poverty. If anything, I felt it was glossing over the true hardships of poverty -- the slow suffering of untreated medical conditions, hunger and malnourishment.

To my eye, this does as well as any film I've seen in giving a realistic portrayal. If anything, it errored on the side of NOT showing the true suffering of poverty. But I'll accept that if it gives americans more of a sense of the poor as agents, and not as pure victims in need of saving.

BaliBrasil said...

I will start by saying I have not been to India however I have traveled the six continents (and specifically SE Asia including Vietnam) besides Antarctica so I, unfortunately as a non-ugly America, know my way around poverty and have see it up close and personal and read what I need to read to understand what is involved as a nascent economist, etc. BTW, to get a great glimpse into India check out this blog

In short I am with the author in regards to this movie and it's depiction as I recently watched it and took it as the following as expressed to friends and family: In short this flick is much in line with the Bollywood fantasy tradition and is not to be taken as a grand statement on Indian life, poverty, etc. nor was that the intent of Danny Boyle as far as I could discern. Heck, by the dint of the naysayers, you could argue that his Trainspotting puts a very sad light on the Scots which I would strongly disagree with too. It is clearly a sort of entertainment escapism and not much more. An incredibly enjoyable film that I liked but hardly a masterpiece of cinema. And this is coming from someone like me who is one of the biggest Kubrick fans out there and tends to hate sappy stuff.

Ravi Annapragada said...

When I saw your status message "A few thoughts on Slumdog" I was expecting another of those bashing Amithab kind of blog. But I was pleasantly surprised to see a take which I hold myself.

I do not know what people want to see these days from Indian cinema. There is this misconception that any movie which is not all hunky dory and filled with cheesy songs has to be off beat and arty movie. Slumdog is a documentary style movie in mainstream. This has confused the old school guys who can not see two different styles being merged.

Awesome post RAP.