Filed under: Film | Tags: Academy Awards, Colonialism, Danny Boyle, Dharavi, Horatio Alger, Imperialism, India, Irvine Welsh, Mitu Sengupta, Mumbai, Oscars, Q & A, Ragged Dick, Salman Rushdie, Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting, Vikas Swarup
“I think we can afford to leave Mott Street now,” he continued.
“This house isn’t as neat as it might be, and I shall like to live
in a nicer quarter of the city.”
“All right,” said Dick. “We’ll hunt up a new room to-morrow. I shall
have plenty of time, having retired from business. I’ll try to get
my reg’lar customers to take Johnny Nolan in my place. That boy
hasn’t any enterprise. He needs some body to look out for him.”
“You might give him your box and brush, too, Dick.”
“No,” said Dick; “I’ll give him some new ones, but mine I want
to keep, to remind me of the hard times I’ve had, when I was an
ignorant boot-black, and never expected to be anything better.”
“When, in short, you were ‘Ragged Dick.’ You must drop that name,
and think of yourself now as”–
“Richard Hunter, Esq.,” said our hero, smiling.
“A young gentleman on the way to fame and fortune,” added Fosdick.
— Horatio Alger, Ragged Dick: Or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks (1868)
Boy we love that rags to riches song. And so does the Academy, with Slumdog Millionaire (2008) picking up a trunk-full of Oscars Sunday night. I thought the movie was fun, and my initial response was that considering the minefield of potential exploitation such a project portends, director Danny Boyle did rather well. He even hired an Indian co-director, Lovleen Tandan, to give the film that added oomph of authenticity. I forgot, of course, that I don’t know anything about India, Mumbai or the slumdogs. Boyle caught me, like the American tourist johns in his film, staring at my own navel and liking what I saw.
Of course, Slumdog‘s Mumbai bares little resemblance to the real one. As Mitu Sengupta of Ryerson University writes in a wonderful anti-colonialist tonic in the Star,
Most of the awards collected by the film have been accepted in the name of “the children,” suggesting that its own cast and crew regard (and are promoting) it not as a cinematically spectacular and entertaining work of fiction, which it is, but as a powerful tool of advocacy.
Nothing could be more worrying. Slumdog, despite all the hype to the contrary, delivers a deeply disempowering narrative about the poor, which undermines, if not totally negates, its apparent message of social justice….
If anything, Boyle’s magical tale, with its unconvincing one-dimensional characters and absurd plot devices, greatly understates the depth of suffering among India’s poor. It is near impossible, for example, that Jamal would emerge from his ravaged life with a dewy complexion and an upper-class accent.
However, the real problem with Slumdog is not its shallow, impressionistic portrayal of poverty. Its real problem is that it grossly minimizes the capabilities and even the basic humanity of those it claims to speak for. It is no secret that large chunks of Slumdog are meant to reflect life in Dharavi, the 213-hectare spread of slums at the heart of Mumbai. The film’s depiction of the legendary area, which is home to some one million people, is that of a feral wasteland, with little evidence of order, community or compassion.
Other than the children (the “slumdogs”), no one is even remotely well-intentioned. Hustlers, thieves, and petty warlords run amok, and even Jamal’s schoolteacher, a thin, bespectacled man who introduces him to The Three Musketeers, is inexplicably callous. This is a place of evil and decay, of a raw, chaotic tribalism.
Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Dharavi teems with dynamism and creativity, and is a hub of entrepreneurial activity, in industries such as garment manufacturing, embroidery, pottery, and leather, plastics and food processing. It is estimated that the annual turnover from Dharavi’s small businesses is between $50 and $100 million (U.S.).
Dharavi’s lanes are lined with cellphone retailers and cyber cafés and, according to surveys by Microsoft Research India, the slum’s residents exhibit a remarkably high absorption of new technologies.
In a somewhat more cantankerous tone, Salman Rushdie echoes Sengupta’s analysis and states that Boyle’s film ‘piles impossibility upon impossibility’, citing the geographical difficulty of travelling 1000 miles to the Taj Mahal between scenes and the significant improbability that the Malik brothers could procure a handgun in India.
Indeed, when we compare Slumdog to Boyle’s masterpiece, Trainspotting (1996), the fulsome laminate of the former begins to peel. While Renton, Spud and Sick Boy evince a startling grit and humanity in the tenements of Glasgow, there is no consonant authenticity to the flat protagonists of Slumdog. Indeed, when we examine the source material of both scripts, the dissonance between them is severe. Consider Irvine Welsh’s disjointed and vernacular novel set (unlike the film) in Leith where Welsh was born and raised, and the author of Q & A (2005), Vikas Swarup, an Indian diplomat who writes in English. Surely, too, Boyle, with his working-class Irish roots, is closer to the source material of Trainspotting than he is to the hearsay evidence from which he created his vision of the Dharavi slums.
I admit that discussions of ‘authenticity’ get us nowhere, but it is important to point out the scale of this illusion when it comes to films like Slumdog Millionaire. Not because we shouldn’t enjoy such films, of course we do—after all, Horatio Alger made a career out of feelgood picaresque tales of the poverty stricken achieving bougeois comfort through the power of their courage and generosity over a hundred years ago, and he was hardly the first. But because when movies like this begin to seem like more than they are (I’m reminded, fleetingly, of the nauseating Oscar-winning Paul Haggis film Crash ) we need to inject a bit of perspective into the whole operation. Slumdog Millionaire was not an ‘extraordinary journey’; it does not prove that if you have ‘passion and…belief… if you have those two things, truly anything is possible’. It proves no more than that we like the taste of popcorn; that we like to believe that the poor of the world are so cursed because of their cold hearts and moral failings, and that true spirits can persevere if their will is strong; it proves, finally, that as long as we can paint our own imaginative versions of the Other, we need not confront her ourselves.