14 January 2009

a taste for proxy penury

I was bothered yesterday by the fact that Slumdog Millionare (Slumdog Crorepati!) has taken over the news here because of the Golden Globe wins (first Indian to win a GG, for the score of the film). I couldn't quite pinpoint it. Something about the fact that the film has yet to be released in India (it comes out on the 23rd of January) and yet the press is falling all over itself in praise for the film. It will be interesting to see reactions of those who go and see it finally, after all the hype here.

What bothered me wasn't quite that, though--it was more than just the unjustness of India's massive movie-going public being last on the list of those who get to see the film. The film about India. The film that many are marvelling at--how real it is, how it gets into the depth of the slums, etc. Critics in India's media are talking about how it took a foreign director to film in the real slums--the assumed corellary that an Indian director would put together a film set in some backlot in the Bollywood film cities.

But this wasn't what was bothering me. Then I read this somewhat tongue-in-cheek piece in the opinion section of the paper this morning (the TOI, Times of India): Slumdog Solution. It doesn't hit my discomfort quite on the head, but it gets close: isn't this just the west fawning over a depiction of the non that it really really really needs right now: hey look, they're poorer than us. Like really a lot poorer. Wow could it be worse. But hey, they have hope, so we should have hope, no? Out of the muck, beauty rises.

And yes, like the lotus, so the characters in Slumdog. The idea of slum tourism that the article raises at the end (Beggar & Breakfast) echoes existing forms of terror tourism in places like Israel (okay maybe not this month, but...) and Ireland. Books like Shantaram also provide some voyeuristic insight into slum life, although that book is closer to a memoir and doesn't sugar coat much (vide the scenes in the prison). Fiction like Mistry's A Fine Balance does a better job of revealing the horrors of mafia-controlled begging rings and the resultant loss of human potential. And by "better" I mean no, it doesn't get better. Not after 300 pages, not after 500. It only gets worse.

I suppose that while I enjoyed the film, and thought the first 2/3rds to be beautifully filmed, well directed, wonderfully acted, and yes, very "real" if that can be ascribed to a film, I had trouble with the salvation bit at the end, and with the fact that the torture in police custody bit was filmically placed at the beginning but temporally co-existed with the moment of highest hope. Tension and contradiction, to be sure. But how much of this is, as the TOI asks, poverty pornography? How are we culpable for this? What are the ethics of the celebration of Slumdog in a moment of downward economic spiral in which those already at the bottom will in all likelihood only get crushed more?

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