Reflections on “Slumdog Millionaire”
January 27, 2009
Reflections on Slumdog Millionaire
Despite the hoopla in some circles about Slumdog Millionaire, I find it a disturbing film: empty-headed in one way, and malicious in others. A number of reviewers (for instance, the London Times’ Alice Miles http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/alice_miles/article5511650.ece ) have called the film “poverty porn” – a prurient voyeurism focusing on the suffering of others, especially of children. I agree.
There is nothing wrong about portraying poverty. Some of the greatest films of all time, for instance the magnificent Pather Panchali, focused on the troubled lives of the poor. But they treated their poverty-stricken protagonists with sensitivity and caring. Slumdog Millionaire treats the poor as disposable cartoon-characters to be ill-treated and tortured; of course, they also break into song at convenient moments.
There have also been very good films focusing on the nasty, brutish and short lives of street children in Mumbai and Sao Paolo respectively: Salaam Mumbai and Pixote. Neither was easy to watch: it is never easy to see children being brutalized. But there was a certain air of truth to them; and beyond any hackneyed saccharine endings, there was the feeling that at least some of these children would survive and thrive.
There is no such redeeming virtue in Slumdog, which is unapologetic about graphic violence. There is a harrowing scene where a young child has his eyes burnt out with acid. There is a similar scene in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s masterpiece Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, set in fascist Italy, where a handsome young man’s eyeball is gouged out. Salo is one of the most brutal and horrifying films ever made: and it was intended to be so, in a Brechtian way – the viewer was supposed to be horrified at man’s capacity for evil.
Salo was set in an Italian castle, to which four aging libertines – the Duke, the President, the Magistrate, and the Bishop — kidnap a group of absolutely beautiful young men and women. These youths – no more than teenagers – are put through the most gruesome physical, mental and sexual tortures imaginable, including brutal and public rapes, tongues ripped off, nipples burned with candles, violent sodomy, the forcible eating of feces, and so on.
Salo was a meditation on the nature of evil, with the four men, representing four pillars of society, bringing to life Dante Alighieri’s vision of the medieval Christian hell, along with a dash of violence straight out of Marquis de Sade. Pasolini, a homosexual and a leftist, probably intended this as an indictment of fascism.
Perhaps Danny Boyle imagines he is following in Pasolini’s footsteps when he portrays Mumbai as a living hell. Is this film, similarly, an indictment of India? Is there more to the film than an exercise in artistry? Is it purely coincidental that it carries an eerie echo of the official position of the British government, as recently articulated by their Foreign Minister David Miliband, on a visit to India?
Let us be charitable and assume that Boyle wanted to condemn whatever it is in India that has caused this abject poverty to happen and continue. Who were the culprits? Ironically, it was British imperialists who beggared a hitherto prosperous India by “borrowing” capital that is worth $10 trillion — yes, trillion — in today’s terms. Besides, tens of millions of Indians were starved to death by uncaring British imperialists, as graphically described in Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino and the Making of the Third World. Perhaps this would be a good time to ask Britain for reparations?
And who has kept 250 million Indians in poverty even after the imperialists left in 1947? Why, the Congress, and the Communists! Through mind-numbingly idiotic schemes whose main result was the large-scale transfer of public wealth to private hands, the Congress and the Communists, through sixty years of their rule, have successfully prevented a large number of Indians from rising from poverty. So Boyle is targeting the true villains.
If only this were the case! But we all know it is not. Danny Boyle’s target – everybody’s soft target, because it does not retaliate with violence – is Hinduism, as Kanchan Gupta suggested in the Pioneer (“Slumdog is about defaming Hindus” http://www.dailypioneer.com/152164/Slumdog-is-about-defaming-Hindus.html). This is similar to how Deepa Mehta and Shabana Azmi dissembled about their use of the names “Sita” and “Radha” – names pregnant with meaning for Hindus – in the over-rated film “Fire”, as I pointed out ten years ago on Rediff.com (“The problem with Fire” http://www.rediff.com/entertai/1999/jan/11fire.htm )
There is a tendency among the British to stereotype and demonize Hindus in particular and Indians in general. For some reason, this is welcomed with nothing short of rapture by a section of the media and the self-proclaimed “intelligentsia” of New Delhi. There is, for instance, a second-rate historian who routinely thunders against Hindus. The level of his incompetence was exposed in a BBC film where he suggested that the Christian apostle Thomas “could have” come to India. Well, he didn’t – and history is generally about what happened, not what “could possibly have” happened.
Another example is the local stringer for a magazine. He arrived in India after a stint in Pakistan, and he declared at the time that he liked Pakistanis, whom he “could sit around with, and wonder what the heck was going on.” On the contrary, he condemned Indians as “prickly nationalists”, for whom he obviously felt distaste. Unfortunately, his declaration has vanished from the website, but he backs up his assertion in each and every one of his dispatches. His prejudices are there for all to see.
Why do they do this? I have a few theories. One is that the British always found it easier to relate to Mohammedans, because both thought of themselves as natural conquerors. British rule was also heavily influenced by the Church, as is documented in Suhash Chakravarty’s brilliantstudy The Raj Syndrome: A Study in Imperial Perceptions. The Christian British found Hindus incomprehensible, and this
continues to this day.
The other theory is based on the decline of Britain. The New York Times carried a story (“Falling Pound Raises Fears of Stagnation” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/22/business/worldbusiness/22pound.html?_r=2&ref=world ) that suggests Britain is going to be very severely affected by the global downturn. This must increase the urgency with which the British – after all, branded a “nation of shopkeepers” by no less a personality than Napoleon Bonaparte – need to seek economic help. The most obvious donors are Arabs, with their stockpiles of cash; therefore it makes sense for the British to appease their sentiments, never mind the cost to India.
Whence, for instance, the Miliband statement, which, taken to its logical conclusion, suggests that India should simply hand over Kashmir to Pakistan. No skin off their British noses, I suppose. This sentiment is widespread among British politicians, who are also influenced by the vote-bank-appeasement politics (alas, so familiar to Indians!) because of their Mirpuri and Pakistani constituents who tend to live in compact urban ghettos, unlike Indians who have dispersed into the suburbs.
The British will make all sorts of compromises for the sake of trade. This was demonstrated some time ago when, annoyed at something the British said, Malaysia’s then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed abruptly cancelled all British contracts. The alacrity with which the British apologized, nay, crawled abjectly, was a wonder to see.
Therefore bad behavior is expected from the British. It is not with the Indians involved – the writer (an Indian diplomat named Vikas Swarup – this is how Indian diplomats present India?) or the actors, or, in particular, A R Rehman. It is disappointing that Rehman has collaborated in such a venture, demeaning and demonizing Hindus and Indians.
For several reasons. One, that he is a master artist. I was listening to his songs from Roja the other day, and they are marvelous, especially the one titled “Choti si asha”. I was reflecting how the Tamil original was better than the Hindi version, and the irony of me, someone whose Hindi and Tamil are both pretty rusty, still being able to appreciate them. And the film itself was wonderful, a patriotic and beautifully told tale that emphasized the civilizational unity of India.
Two, I was watching a video on youtube about IIT Madras, and there was a professor saying “There was a marvelous keyboard player named Dilip from Loyola College who used to come for Mardi Gras in the 1980’s. Of course he is now known as A R Rehman”. Rehman converted to his new religion a few years ago, and no Hindu objected. He must know that Hindus are not running around slicing Mohammedan women’s throats on a whim or burning them alive. If anything, it is the opposite – the Sabarmati Express in Godhra, Radhabai Chawl in Mumbai.
Three, Rehman has sung passionately about the nation in his best-selling arrangement of “Vande Mataram”, which may well have aroused some negative comment among his new co-religionists. Someone who has that feeling of pride in India should not have collaborated with Danny Boyle in this abomination.
Yes, I am disappointed in Rehman, despite my very great respect for his artistic genius.
Danny Boyle, on the other hand, doesn’t matter. He may get his Oscar, and he may make his next film about the man, somewhere in the US, who kidnapped a teenage hitchhiker, raped her, cut off both her hands, and left her to bleed to death. The girl, somehow, survived. Or about the man in Austria who kept his daughter captive in his basement for twenty-four years, raped and impregnated her repeatedly, and fathered seven children with her. Or about those teenage-runaway-junkie-hookers in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, who accost passers-by with a drug-dazed “Wanna party?” Their lives are unlikely to be better than what the New York Times reports about teenage prostitutes in Cambodia http://www.iht.com/articles/2009/01/01/opinion/edkristof.php . There are many depraved people, and equally depraved voyeurs will never run out of subjects. And if Boyle ever wants to make a quiz show a metaphor for a culture, he would do well to study Robert Redford’s intelligent and provocative Quiz Show, a minor masterpiece.