Monday, 23 February 2009

slumdog millionaire

you must have heard by now that slumdog millionaire (SM) has cleaned up at the oscars. i've not watched the film yet, but hope to do so some time soon.

if you've been following the publicity around the film, you'll know that there has been a lot of controversy in india about it. there has been much protest and anger. some of this relates to the perceived exploitation of the young children from the slums that acted in the film, and of poverty in general. some of it relates to the negative portrayal of bombay (and hence of india), considered to be in bad taste after the recent attacks.

amitabh bachchan, one of india's most famous and well known actors and the first host of india's version of "who wants to be a millionaire", came out with a scathing attack on the film:

if SM projects India as [a] third-world, dirty, underbelly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky underbelly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations.

this and other comments by him (later denied) could easily be written off as professional jealousy. bachchan is a much, much better actor than anil kapoor (who plays the host of the TV show in SM) and his films have had much greater commercial success, yet has never received recognition in the west to the extent of being able to walk the red carpet at the oscars.

it's easy to dismiss the defensiveness of many indians about the negativity of the film. in the context of the film water, it made me angry that there were attempts to stop filming mostly on the basis of national pride. i'd be the first to say that issues like this need to be aired. simon morris, in reviewing the film, writes off the criticisms by saying (and i paraphrase) that the film is as much a portrayal of all of bombay as "oliver twist" was a portrayal of the whole of london.

however, there is a difference between "oliver twist" and SM, and that difference is context. the context is that the majority of portrayals in the west of india (and indeed most asian, african & middle eastern countries) are overwhelmingly negative. with a history of colonisation and contempt of coloured people, these negative portrayals are often used to point a finger of accusation, to support a feeling of smug superiority in those living in the west. it's as if there's a jeering undertone of "look at how those savages live; aren't we so much better than them". of course, england being one of the colonising countries never had to face that kind of environment. so in that sense, oliver twist is not really an adequate comparison.

i have to say that i have some sympathy with this view. i too get heartily sick of the moral superiority, and the lack of recognition that much of the poverty has been a result of colonial powers syphoning off the wealth of the country back to the homeland, with little thought of how the natives would survive and prosper. i get sick of the glossing over of unfair trade practices and the continuing apetite of the west to consume products that they know full well were produced using less than adequate (and sometimes horrific) labour practices. it's as if the problems in developing countries exist in isolation, with westerners taking no responsibility for their own actions and institutions which seek to perpetuate injustice and poverty.

in that context, many indians will look at SM as yet another in a long line of western spotlights that ignore the beauty, the rich history, the diverse cultures and languages of india. another negative spotlight in a long line of negative spotlights. whether this view is nationalism and patriotism at its worst or a reasonable backlash against centuries of racism is hard to say. or what i mean is that i can identify with both points of view, and will have to wait til i see the film before i can decide between them!


Anonymous said...

Indian reaction:

Danyl said...

if SM projects India as [a] third-world, dirty, underbelly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky underbelly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations.

Yeah, you have this kind of false equivilency conversation all the time in India; there is poverty in the west but the reality is that its NOTHING like the poverty in India, in the sense of misery or scale. And India was a colony horribly exploited by the British - but its neighbour China was horribly exploited by Maoism in much more recent times and it's STILL considerably richer than India. The reality is that contemporary indian poverty tends to be caste based (the Dalit's are horribly poor) or religious (as in Slumdog, many slum residents are muslim). Rural poverty - which is far worse than that of the slums - is seen by India's (incredibly corrupt) cultural elite as somehow noble and holy - a relic of Gandhi's very odd notions of Hindu nationalism - and not, therefore, something they need to do anything about.

Anonymous said...

I thought it was a good film in terms of the love story.

I mean, should we come out with a scathing attack on Once Were Warriors because of the way it depicts NZ?

Social problems shouldn't be swept under the carpet.

I think you're reading too much into it, most viewers are intelligent enough to realise it's a fictional story.

Psycho Milt said...

of course, england being one of the colonising countries never had to face that kind of environment.

Actually, the British Isles have been invaded and colonised multiple times, and we English are mongrels of a bunch of different cultures. We got over it.

Anonymous said...

There's plenty to criticise in Slumdog Millionaire, but as a depiction of India I didn't think it was so bad - it's a ditzy fairytale, but it shows the poverty and the wealth, the westernised and the traditional sides of India. It has the usual British obsession with gangsters, but expecting it to give a balanced picture of India is like expecting 'Lord of the Rings' to accurately depict New Zealand.


Sam Buchanan

stargazer said...

danyl, i know that there has been plenty of affirmative action in india to improve the condition of lower castes - to the extent of reservation of 45% of university student intake for them. for example. as to how successful these programmes have been, i don't know. and of course discrimination based on religion is alive and well.

anonymous, i'm not reading anything into the story cos i haven't seen it yet. i was reading into the response to the film in india and looking at the reasons behind that.

psycho milt, i think the last time england was conquered by outside forces was in 1066. so i guess in 940 years from now, indians will have gotten over it too. and even then, the conquerors didn't bleed the country dry by sending wealth offshore. they stayed and became part of the country & in fact improved it. so a totally false comparison.

sam, again i think you're missing the point i was trying to make about context. nz hasn't had a lot of constant negative attention on a global scale; LOTR wasn't even negative attention nor was it about nz (it was only shot in nz), so isn't anywhere near appropriate as a comparison. once were warriors is a more appropriate comparison, and i would make the same points as i made about oliver twist.

in any case, i don't necessarily agree with the defensive reaction that has been felt by many indians in india & around the world. but i do understand it.

Anonymous said...

I wrote the Once Were Warriors comment above.

I don't think a defensive reaction is necessary. At the end of the day, it's a work of fiction. It's basically a fairy tale and I don't think it's a symptom of Western attitudes towards India.

If you're stupid enough to ignore India's rich culture, philosophy, literature, science, food and cricketers and believe everything you see in the movies, then you are a poorer person for that.

Personally, I am looking forward to Virender Sehwag playing the Black Caps. I mean, don't you think it's ironic that the Indians play a game invented by the English better than the English and that curry is now the national dish of England because our own food was so shit?

stargazer said...

ah yes, cricket. i game i used to love and spent endless hours of my childhood & youth watching. but ever since the match-fixing scandals, i always wonder if teams are playing to win or playing to lose. in fact, i feel that way about most sport now, and tennis is about the only thing i enjoy any more. but that's a whole other topic!

and india of course in undefinable, vast and varied, full of the worst and the best. i did wonder whether the reaction to SM was because it was basically a western production, as you hear that coming out in a lot of the comments. but then deepa mehta is desi, though canadian by nationality i think, and she has faced heaps of criticism too.

Anonymous said...

Granted, Lord of the Rings was a weak comparison, I used it because I think Slumdog was equally distant from reality. My point is that nationalists often cry "this doesn't represent our country", and they are always technically correct, as no one film (or whatever) ever will. But I thought Slumdog did a better job of representing the variety of India than most films.


PS. I'm not sure Norman rule improved England, but otherwise I agree. The last conquerers to truly colonise Britain were probably the Romans, and even their exploitation of the countries resources was limited to what the British did to the world.

Placebogirl said...

I find that much of the criticism of this movie dodges the fact that it is based on a book, written by Vikas Swarup (who was born in India, but I don't know where he grew up or anything). I read the book years ago and loved it, all the while reading it as a bit of a fairy story, and the movie accurately (to my mind) represents the sense of the book, though it doesn't stick as closely to the actual story (in particular I have problems with the movie's treatment of Latika--her story is quite different in the book--but that is another comment).

Given the history of this story, it feels to me like the opposition is not really to the way India is portrayed, but to the fact that it is portrayed this way in a mass-market movie, rather than a book which might not be so widely read.

Anonymous said...

India is a wonderfully rich and diverse country full of wonderful people who get on with life despite the terrible poverty that surrounds them and their society.

I spent time there and loved it, and movies like SDM is pure excapism, just like the thousands of Bollywood movies. In India there is an extreme conservative element, and they are always pouring hate on outside influences and how people depict them.

Believe me when I say this extreme element is largely ignored by the majority who I am sure are happy to have attention drawn to their society.

bar paris said...

Slumdog Millionaire is really a great movie, i'm happy for the Oscar !

Psycho Milt said...

so a totally false comparison.

Not a comparison, merely a factual correction. Also, I'm sure it won't take India 900 years to get over it - a century or two should do it.

stargazer said...

i don't know if a century or two will be enough actually, particularly with the strong nationalism that is coming through and a very strong backlash from the religious conservatives to anything other than "traditional" values & culture (for which, see the post on the pink chaddi campaign). in fact, the religious right in india are pretty much akin to the religious right in america (except the indian ones are more deadly) and have had just a big an impact on politics.

i don't see an end in sight any time soon, so the "anti-west" sentiment may last quite some time. in that light, criticism of SM seems to me to be quite petty, and i also wonder whether the main characters being muslim have a little something to do with the negativity.

and yet, i can still sympathise with the view that people are sick of seeing their country in a negative light. i'd better get out and see the movie soon!

Giovanni said...

I haven't seen the film, but most of the negative reaction I heard/read from Indians has been centred around the sentimentalisation of poverty rather than the the fact that the root causes were being ignored or even that poverty was displayed at all. I think those who have commented that the outsider perspective complicates things are absolutely right - doesn't an Indian-made-in-India-by-Indians film like Lagaan for instance sentimentalise poverty and simplify history too? But I have some sympathy for the position. I know how I feel about films of this kind made about my country (Cinema Paradiso, etc.) and in two words is "not good".

Julian said...

I found this Indian blog with genuine perspectives of Indians on this movie.

Quite interesting - make you think on how we patronize them...

Craig Ranapia said...

however, there is a difference between "oliver twist" and SM, and that difference is context

How about the "context" of British cinema -- and while Danny Boyle's own 'Trainspotting', 'My Beautiful Laundrette', 'Boys from the Blackstuff', the films of Dennis Potter, Shane Meadows, Ken Loach, Mike Lee and many more might not have gotten much distribution in India, it wasn't all Merchant-Ivory heritage porn. (And there's a thesis to be written on the little irony that the best known purveyors of these lush but bloodless -- and awfully monochromatic -- British period pieces were a gay American director and his Indian partner.) More Brideshead benighted than revisited.

And it's highly questionable how well commercial Indian cinema stands up to critical analysis when it comes to the "sentimentalisation of poverty", and enforcing repressive gender and social norms.

Julie said...

Here's a link to a discussion about the film at Bitch PhD, which has links to a couple of other interesting posts too.

I saw the film recently and hope to come back and write a proper comment when I have some time. Thanks for starting this discussion Anjum.