Posted by: Manjeet Krpalani on February 10, 2009
Slumdog Millionaire is a brilliant, authentic, deeply disturbing and deeply uplifting film all at the same time.
The depiction of slum life, a brutalized childhood, gang wars, police methods, India in transition, and in the middle of it all, love devoted and pure, are all true to life.
I trembled right through the movie; my body would not stop shaking, it had such an effect on me.
One of my friends, the husband of an artist whose work is known for its realism, said he could not see more than ten minutes of the film. He felt it had no brightness, that the gloom was unrelenting.
But the gloom in the lives of such children is indeed unrelenting. They live Dickensenian lives. The exploitation by beggar kings and trafficking in children was rampant some years ago, and very visible in large immigrant cities like Bombay. It is not so rampant now, and the many NGOs in the city sweep up the children from the streets and make them study something, even if it’s in a mobile school, and give them a nutritious meal. In this child-centered society, Indian parents, no matter how poor, love their children dearly, and do what they can within their capacity to protect them. The film shows that too.
There’s been controversy over whether Hollywood only reflects the worst aspects of India, or whether Bollywood can’t treat poverty in a realistic manner. I’m pretty sure every film producer and director in India has watched Slumdog with great interest. Bollywood does not produce such stark films because the vast masses want to escape from their dreary lives into another world. So even though poverty and abuse and exploitation are all depicted, they are shown in a glamorized manner, with lots of singing and dancing thrown in. Slumdog depicts the importance of the escapism beautifully in the scene where the young protagonist, Jamal, covered with filth, runs to meet his Bollywood hero Amitabh Bachchan.
But maybe Slumdog’s amazing success will make Indian film makers think more realistically about the India that they project even to their own citizens.
When I went to see the film, three weeks after its release in India, the theatre was full of foreigners; very few brown faces like mine. It is perhaps easier for a foreign audience to sit through a movie like this, than it is for us. Partly because it’s not their society being so starkly portrayed, and partly because I think there is a historical global familiarity with an India of poverty - easier to understand and more predictable than the unnerving New India.
For us, it is a grim reminder of what we see around us every day and don’t do much about. As Indians move up the economic ladder and move out of poverty into the lower middle classes, they too, like the middle and upper classes, opt out of the services provided by the state, like education and healthcare. Because the state is so ineffective, they flee to the private sector. It leaves fewer and fewer people to fight to make the system better for those left behind. It is not inclusive behaviour and we are finally ashamed of it. Maybe things will begin to change now - now that the India of the private sector found that it could not buy its way out of poor national security and was left open to the terrorist attacks of last November.