Blind Man with a Pistol

Ragged Jamal

“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 [2005]) 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.

15 Comments so far
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Superb analysis, Catchfire. I haven’t seen the film, but it’s invaluable to have Sengupta’s testimony. And the contrast with Trainspotting, film and (some) context both of which I do know, rings true. It’s a shame that Slumdog‘s version of Dharavi won’t for people who know and care about it.

Comment by skdadl

An interesting account, but I have to admit that I take issue with the realist fallacy contained therein, and the companion notion that art must be moral.

I’ll leave it at that for now.

Comment by Dr.Dawg

Uhm, I think this review is a bit uncharitable, and I’m really suspicious of people who want to make life in India’s slums sound like some kind of economic miracle, really suspicious. There’s a reason why the BJP’s slogan “India Shining” fell flat the last time around.

Comment by Mandos

Dr. Dawg: By ‘realist fallacy’, I assume you mean the belief that art must be real; or, in the words of the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács, that art should accurately reflect the real social relations of society. I don’t agree with this, because this approach demands a totality that remains inaccessible. Furthermore, you must see the irony in Rushdie, he of telepathic proboscidian children and archangels intervening in plane crashes, complaining of a narrative’s ‘impossibilities’. The question is not is a work ‘real’ or not, but: what is its effect?

I don’t see how the notion that art must be moral is a ‘companion’ to this notion, unless you have deduced from this post that I believe both: I don’t. If anything, Slumdog is the ‘moral’ art because of the ethical lesson it attempts to impose upon us. Make us better citizens and the like. I have absolutely no problem with art meant for consumption, or, on the other end of the spectrum, art that challenges established social ethics and codes. But Slumdog pretends to change the world, and it is simply the latest instalment in the legacy of Horatio Alger.

Mandos: I suppose the review is uncharitable, although I said I enjoyed the film. I understand your objection to the “India Shining” movement, and indeed, Sengupta mentions that this movie is an affront to middle-class India’s national pride, but I think you are projecting that sentiment onto this review. Sengupta does not say that Dharavi is an ‘economic miracle’. In fact, she criticizes Slumdog for not outlining the true extent of Mumbai’s poverty. Instead, she attempts to draw a full, round picture of life in the slum: deprived, certainly, but not of humanity.

Comment by Blind Man

I should also add, Dr. Dawg, that I am not arguing that Trainspotting is better than Slumdog because it is somehow more ‘authentic’; rather, I believe the obverse: that Boyle seems to create better art when he is closer to the material.

Comment by Blind Man

For me, at least, it was pretty clear in the movie that the slums were a functioning society. Yes, I was worried it was patronizing too but that’s a danger of the genre, or of presenting Indian poverty to Western audiences. The high-rise issue, for instance, is brought up right in the movie itself—not to mention the inherent wry critique in the whole cell phone call center scenes (“Loch Big Ben”…). I worry about analyses like Sengupta, because I do that some of the problems and solutions are external to the slums and their society.

I was impressed that they covered the communal rioting at all, and frankly I’m more interested in anything that punctures middle class India’s whole We Have Crawled Out Of The Primordial Ooze psychology.

Comment by Mandos

I have yet to see the film. Authenticity has never been a Hollywood forte when making “feel good” movies and from a dramatic POV, extreme poverty is a prerequisite for the rags to riches storyline.

This passage from Sengupta made me think of Oliver Twist:

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.

Could the screenplay/novel be highly influenced by Charles Dickens? They say there are a finite number of stories to tell and that only the cast, time and location changes.

(On funnier note, Horatio Alger is Don Cherry’s favourite author.)

Comment by Beijing York

Slumdog pretends to change the world, and it is simply the latest instalment in the legacy of Horatio Alger.

I agree with this. But wherein is the “ethical lesson” that the film allegedly thrusts upon us?

Comment by Dr.Dawg

Dickensian is very much “in” when it comes to Indian movies, and Slumdog definitely fits into that genre even if it is marketed at Westerners.

The teacher, btw, holds true to the image of South Asian schoolteachers my parents both experienced, even if my parents come from, um, a far different social class. Fairly painful corporal punishment, etc.

Comment by Mandos

Mandos: your points are well taken. Boyle is a talented filmmaker and he did go through great lengths to produce an authentic experience. I only wanted to temper what appears to me lavish, even hyperbolic, praise for a good film that remains, nevertheless problematic considering the West’s relationship to its Other.

Beijing: There is definitely a Dickensian influence in the book. The character ‘maman’, who deliberately burns and injures orphaned children to increase the sympathy (and hence, handouts) they garner, is a clear nod to Oliver Twist‘s Fagin. Hilarious about Cherry, btw.

Dr. Dawg: it’s the lesson that the poor and disenfranchised of the world can better their economic situation simply by having a ‘good heart’–the obvious implication being that if you are poor, it’s your own damn fault.

Comment by Blind Man

Darned if I can make sense of that. Jamal’s brother didn’t have a “good heart,” and, but for an unfortunate set of circumstances, would have done all right in the rupee department. And Jamal himself was the exceptionally lucky winner of a contest. The only lesson here, if lesson it is, is that the only way to escape poverty in India is through luck or violence.

Comment by Dr.Dawg

Well, you’ll notice Dr. Dawg, (SPOILER!) that Jamal’s brother dies at the end: the only reason we reserve some sympathy is because of the one selfless act that redeems him in our eyes–sacrifice for the plucky hero (who believes, like a good member of the bourgeoisie, in selflessness, generosity and true love). Clearly you don’t have to agree with me, but I’ll happily admit that this analysis of the Horatio Alger-type story is not my own: it’s quite a well-known trope.

Comment by Blind Man

Of course it’s a well-known trope, or should that word be topos? No matter. In the present context, the fragility of his path to riches is overemphasized: we are aware at every step how contingent his rise is. It’s a fairy tale, certainly, but hardly bourgeois.

Consider: what bourgeois goes on these game-show thingies or buys lottery tickets? That’s a diversion for the underclasses. And it’s manageable because, as an essential aspect of this kind of thing, only a handful win.

By the same token, selflessness and generosity are virtues, like tightening one’s belt, that are imposed upon the underclasses, but hardly adopted by the bourgeoisie themselves.

Comment by Dr.Dawg

I don’t think we disagree, Dawg. Yes, lottery tickets and primetime game shows are pursuits of the poor, but they are watched by the comfortable middle classes–like this movie. Jamal is not the bourgeoisie–he is the moral code that keeps the lower classes off the bourgeoisie’s heels. He also encourages the fantasy that the middle classes have earned what they have by their moral superiority and sticktoitiveness, rather than by the innate inequality of capitalism.

Anyway, this is all secondary to the main point of the post, which was to question the smug self righteousness of the producers of Slumdog Millionaire and the British film industry in general, who are happy to convince themselves that they have produced a great work of social justice, when, like John L. Sullivan in Sullivan’s Travels, they’ve just made a clown flick. It just happens to be a pretty good one.

Comment by Blind Man

Mitu Sengupta’s article on Slumdog Millionaire writes that the film misrepresents Dharavi. First of all, an artist’s primary obligation is toward the maintaining of the artistic integrity of her work. Danny Boyle’s film comes wrapped up in fantasy and the Dharavi we see in the film is consistent with that fantasy.

Secondly, Sengupta talks about the “dynamic” yet “informal” economic life of Dharavi. I believe she speaks of the sweat shops where workers work at measely pay and abysmal working conditions. Is that a sign of development? Again, is it a sign of overall psychic and emotional health of the Dharavi community if people are seen carrying cell phones?

In short, poverty is rampant in Asia’s biggest slum. It’s futile to escape this hard fact.

Comment by Sharmila Mukherjee

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