Slumdog Millionaire: East Indians embrace the Oscar wins with mixed feelings
By Robin Arthur
I rose and walked out of the theatre that night, wondering why Slumdog Millionaire was creating a stir among moviegoers. This was, of course, before the Oscar nominations came pouring in. I told my wife: I don’t know what’s creating the stir—it’s showing me what I have already seen and it’s not giving me anything to think about before I go to bed. It dawned on me later that film director Danny Boyle was uncovering a truth world audiences had not seen.
As a young man commuting by train in Bombay, I remember wiping off a tear privately when the carriage sped across grisly slums, straw huts built on garbage heaps and cooking pots lying beside flowing gutters. A couple of months later I packed bags and left for Dubai, sorry at the prospect of not being able to do anything for a downtrodden poor that was being ignored as India was looking to make rapid economic progress for its middle class.
A couple of years later a colleague of mine returned to Dubai from India after a brief holiday. He was euphoric. He told me India had joined the ranks of the richest in the world—that technology and the economy were making rapid progress. I asked if any dent was made in the poverty ranks. He was aghast…thrown off balance with the question. “What poverty?” he said. “I saw no poverty.”
I was irate. Then I got down to writing the book: “Can The Poor Inherit the Earth.” I will comment on the book’s argument at another point in this story.
Enter Sumdog Millionaire. As the film did the rounds across the world, India’s middle class was outraged because of its direct portrayal of poverty at a time when India is, instead, seeking to sit at the table of the global powers. SM, they said, ignores India’s economic prosperity obscuring it with evidence of stark poverty in Asia’s biggest slum.
The famous Indian film star Amitabh Bacchan is quoted as saying: “If SM projects India as a Third World dirty underbelly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky underbelly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations. It’s just that the SM idea authored by an Indian and cinematically put together by a Westerner, gets creative globe recognition. The other would perhaps not.”
Since India has joined the ranks of global powers, there has been a growing backlash in the country against all things Western, especially Western culture and Bacchan’s comments reflect that. India’s middle class is in denial on this matter.
The protests by slum dwellers is about the title Slumdog, which denigrates the slum dweller and politicians have been fuelling these protests for their own agenda. But slum dwellers are missing the point. It is, in fact, a time for India’s poor to wake up and face the truth and as a collective shake up the political structure and ethos to effect change.
Prerna Gupta, the Chief Executive of Yaari.Com writes: If the uproar over the film’s title can be channeled toward improving conditions in Indian slums — informed by the real-life needs of its residents — then “Slumdog Millionaire,” clichéd or not, will have been a success worth lauding. Gupta says: “Many Indians are embracing Slumdog with hesitation, or perhaps not at all, because of its stark portrayal of poverty and corruption in India. It lacks, they say, the fantasy, hope and beauty that we have all become accustomed to as Bollywood fans, and instead focuses on the harsh realities we seek to ignore.
But now, all of a sudden the protests have changed to euphoria following the movie’s victory at the Oscars. The New York Times carried a headline in its recent edition that read: India celebrates Hollywood victory. It said the movie’s victory was embraced as India’s own. This is an excerpt: “What a day it has been for India!” gushed a television news anchor midmorning. The story dominated television news throughout the day. News of a hepatitis B outbreak in western Gujarat State and a southern politician’s threatened hunger strike seemed minor by comparison. “We rocked the world,” an Indian percussionist named Sivamani declared. The NYT report goes on to comment “Never mind that “Slumdog” tells a story of stunted, shafted slum children, precisely the kind of story promoters of the New India have sought to obscure with tales of prosperity. India seized on its Oscar wins as a sign of its arrival on the world stage.”
India has lately been on the crest of a wave, from an economic point of view and has, according to some records, extricated at least one per cent of its population from below the poverty line over the last ten years. But it’s no time for denial—for turning the other way at the sight of poverty.
I believe India has that potential to evolve into a world superpower. But in order to get there, it must rid itself of the baggage of poverty and the grave social ills that come in tow which Boyle has vividly depicted with a realism that brings the story to life. Of course, he has done this transposing hardships with the sacred bonds of brotherhood, the sensuality of a young dancer, and the undying pursuit of the hopeless romantic for his only love—all of which is so unmistakably India.
My book Can the Poor Inherit the Earth takes a closer snapshot at world poverty and the vicious cycle that it inevitably gets trapped in: unbridled population growth, street violence and civil strife, the curse of AIDS or ideology-driven terrorism. It reviews socialist and capitalist solutions – China’s socialist model, India’s experiment with capitalism, Africa as a non-starter, regardless of the international aid pouring in there for decades and, the Japanese miracle in the post-war era.
I argue the fact that developing economies cannot rely on the Keynesian theories of GDP (gross domestic product) growth if the social climate in which the seed of economic prosperity can germinate is not ready. Instead, developing economies are required to firstly transform the social, religious and political institutions which act as obstacles to economic growth. In other words, I argue that what is symptomatic of poverty and the vicious cycle is the overwhelming neglect of LITERACY in developing economies. Literacy is the critical link in the development chain that brings about social change. Consequently there can be no development unless men are educated.
Dr. Wally N’Dow, the former Secretary General of Habitat II has said, in my book: “Of the 100 babies being born everyday, 80 are from the third world. If we do not give these children the skills to empower themselves, the burden of life will ultimately impact on all of humanity.”
It’s just as well that Boyle has promised to send the young Mumbai lads in his film all the way up the schooling ladder.