They aren’t Dogs, in those Slums

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Directors Danny Boyle’s and Loveleen Tandan‘s “Slumdog Millionaire” swept the Oscars this year, in a remarkable sign of globalization. The creative team behind the film was largely British (Tandan began as a casting director and the screenplay was by Simon Beaufoy). But it was based on an Indian novel (Vikas Swarup’s Q & A), set in India with Indian actors, and deployed the cinematic techniques of Bollywood, the massive Indian film industry based in Bombay (a city that Indian television news anchors now call Mumbai but almost no one else does).

Globalization is implicit in the story from every direction. Author Swarup is an Indian diplomat as well as novelist, and has had postings in Turkey, the US, Britain and Ethiopia, and he is now Indian High Commissioner in Praetoria, South Africa. So the story springs from the mind of an inveterate expatriate who knows Ankara and Washington as well as Delhi.

And, the audience reception of the film was global, with Indian slum dwellers mounting angry protests, especially against the title. (“Dog,” or kutta is a highly derogatory thing to call someone in Hindi, maybe as pejorative as “pig” in the US. Most Indians don’t keep dogs as pets, and they are therefore often street animals and go feral. I tried to keep some dogs around as watchdogs in Lucknow by feeding them, but it was always a crap shoot whether they would attack me or the burglars). Just imagine if a film came out in the US about inner city minorities called “Ghetto Pigs.” Anti-globalization writer and acclaimed novelist Arundhati Roy slammed the film for neglecting to depict the real working class and its struggles, instead holding out the false hope of sudden riches.

If poverty-stricken urbanites were upset by the title, the concentration on Indian poverty disturbed middle and upper class Indians who have seen their country advance from fourth-world poverty to the elements of an advanced economy. (Within India’s more than one billion population, there is a middle-class country of 80 million, the size of Germany–with satellite televisions, nice cars, well-appointed homes, and white collar jobs hooked into the world economy). I can’t tell you how tired middle class South Asians get of the Western depiction of their region as destitute, or the use of it to make Western children clean their plates.

That the film was feted in Hollywood even as it was reviled in parts of India was anyway a huge change. As recently as 1992, legendary Bengali director Satyajit Ray received a lifetime achievement Oscar as a nod to the cognoscenti. Ray and other Indian auteurs were in some sense in another universe, off-stage, and so could be symbolically honored at the Oscars. “Slumdog” was the life of this year’s party. India has arrived in American arts.

Boyle, the director of “Trainspotting,” brings his dark vision to this depiction of Indian slum life. Both films contain disgusting immersions in toilets in fulfillment of an obsession, whether with a cocaine high or the autograph of Indian acting giant Amitabh Bachchan. Both contain scenes of gratuitous violence, whether the smashing of a patron’s face by a beer bottle carelessly and indiscriminately thrown from an upper story in a pub, or the cocky gunplay of a budding Bombay gangster. (It is one of the flaws in the argument of figures such as actor Amitabh Bachchan that the film is unfair to India, that Boyle did not exactly portray a Western place like Scotland in a complimentary way, either; he is interested in the downtrodden and hopeless, wherever they are.)

“Slumdog Millionaire” also draws heavily on Bollywood tropes. While most such films are 3-hour melodramas about star-crossed lovers who have to outwit their hidebound parents to get married, “Slumdog” substitutes a gangster brother and his gangster fictive family for the meddling groom’s parents as a plot device for keeping the lovers apart. While greed or perhaps a drive to escape existential boredom drove “Trainspotting,” Jamal Malik’s (Dev Patel’s) unceasing search for his beloved Latika (Freida Pinto) drives “Slumdog.”

But Bollywood themes are also sidestepped. Whereas in most Indian films, a love affair between a Muslim boy like Jamal and a Hindu girl like Latika would be impeded by caste conventions that make such unions socially difficult, in this film that they are orphans and slum dwellers deracinates them to the point where caste and religion are irrelevant. The only one who practices religion in this film is Jamal’s gangster older brother Salim, and even this dallying with mainstream belief and practice has the distinct disadvantage for him of endowing him with a belated conscience. The other context in which religion appears is the Shiv Sena Hindu mob that attacks Jamal’s family and neighborhood, imprinting on his mind the appearance of the God Ram (which otherwise a poor Muslim boy might know little about).

The film is plot-driven, not character-driven. In fact, it is puzzle-driven, since each episode in Jamal’s life, in almost picaresque fashion, is told around the answer to a question on the Indian version of “Who wants to be a Millionaire?” (The other side of globalization is that such television phenomena typically have iterations in each major country around the world; Indian Idol is now very popular).

Jamal’s character, with his quiet stubborn integrity, never alters from childhood to adulthood. Salim is a fighter throughout. And Latika is never defined, swinging between easy coquetry, realistic debauchery, resigned domestic slavery and the high-mindedness of having a one true love. It is the failure of character development and the concentration on puzzle-solving that are the least satisfying and least realistic elements of the film. Would Jamal really never have learned to compromise, ethically or otherwise, in the conditions under which he grew up? Would not Latika have been warped and neurotic and disease-ridden after those years of sexual bondage?

The glamorization of the poor in the film was among the elements that provoked howls of outrage in India itself, drawing charges of “poverty porn” and the promotion of ghetto tourism on the part of the Western affluent.

That the film depicts an one-dimensional view of the poorer areas of Bombay is undeniable. There are Fagins and pimps, gangsters and corrupt building contractors, courtesans and orphans. But poor neighborhoods in India are a dense thicket of social and economic networks, with a working class, shopkeepers, peddlers, and other responsible if poor citizens toiling to eke out an honest living. The film eschews the urban working class for an unrealistic focus solely on the criminal element. Extortion rackets exist. But they prey on small restaurants and shops. If there were no honest workers or businesses, there would be no way to extract protection money.

Both the celebrations and the protests, the bouquets and the brickbats attest the increasing connectedness of the human world, in what Teilhard de Chardin called the “noosphere.” Only in a cyberspace-enabled noosphere could worker activists in the poor areas of Bombay mount real-time protests even as a plethora of golden Oscars were handed out in the poshest venue on the planet. And if the workers in Bombay can as a result of the success of the film draw the attention of the world to the costs of unregulated “flat” globalization, if they can counter Friedmanism from the heart of the displacements caused by Neoliberalism, then the saga of Jamal Malik will have had an impact far beyond the realm of cinema. They aren’t dogs. They are productive human beings. And their struggle is not over.

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