Hollow message

Published : Mar 27, 2009 00:00 IST

A view of Dharavi, Asias largest slum, in Mumbai.-GAUTAM SINGH/AP

A view of Dharavi, Asias largest slum, in Mumbai.-GAUTAM SINGH/AP

DANNY BOYLES Slumdog Millionaire, perhaps the most celebrated film in recent times, tells the rags-to-rajah story of a love-struck Indian boy, Jamal, who, with a little help from destiny, triumphs over his wretched beginnings in Mumbais squalid slums. Riding on a wave of rave reviews, Slumdog has now won Hollywoods highest tribute, the Academy Award for Best Picture, along with seven other Oscars, including one for Best Director.

These honours will probably add some $100 million to Slumdogs box-office takings, as Oscar wins usually do. They will also enhance the films fast-growing reputation as an authentic representation of the lives of Indias urban poor. So far, most of the awards collected by the film have been accepted in the name of the children, suggesting that its own cast and crew regard it (and have relentlessly promoted it) not as a cinematically spectacular, musically rich entertaining work of fiction, which it is, but as a powerful tool of advocacy.

Nothing could be more worrying, as Slumdog, despite all the hype to the contrary, delivers a deeply disempowering narrative about the poor that thoroughly undermines, if not totally negates, its apparent message of social justice.

Slumdog has angered many Indians because it tarnishes the perception of their country as a rising economic power and a beacon of democracy. Indias English-language papers, read mainly by its middle class, have carried many bristling reviews of the film that convey an acute sense of wounded national pride. While understandable, the sentiment is not defensible. Though at times embarrassingly contrived, most of the films heart-rending scenes are inspired by a sad, but well-documented, reality.

Corruption is certainly rampant among the police, and many will gladly use torture, though none is probably dim enough to target an articulate, English-speaking man who is already a rising media phenomenon. Beggar makers do round up abandoned children and mutilate them in order to make them evoke more sympathy though it is highly improbable that any such child will ever chance upon a $100 bill, much less be capable of identifying it by touch and scent alone.

Indeed, if anything, Boyles magical tale, with its unconvincing one-dimensional characters and absurd plot devices, greatly understates the depth of suffering among Indias poor. It is near-impossible, for instance, that Jamal would emerge from his ravaged life with a dewy complexion and an upper-class accent. But the real problem with Slumdog is neither its characterisation of India as just another Third World country nor its shallow, impressionistic portrayal of poverty.

The films real problem is that it grossly minimises the capabilities and even the basic humanity of those it so piously claims to speak for. It is no secret that much of Slumdog is meant to reflect life in Dharavi, the 213-hectare spread of slums in the heart of Mumbai. The films depiction of the legendary Dharavi, which is home to some one million people, is that of a feral wasteland, with little evidence of order, community or compassion. Other than the children, the slumdogs, no one is even remotely well-intentioned. Hustlers, thieves and petty warlords run amok, and even Jamals schoolteacher, a thin, bespectacled man who introduces him to the Three Musketeers, is inexplicably callous. This is a place of evil and decay, of a raw, chaotic tribalism.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Dharavi teems with dynamism, creativity and entrepreneurship, in industries such as garment manufacturing, embroidery, pottery, leather, plastics and food processing. It is estimated that the annual turnover from Dharavis small businesses is between $50 and $100 million. Dharavis lanes are lined with cellphone retailers and cybercafes, and according to surveys by Microsoft Research India, the slums residents exhibit a remarkably high absorption of new technologies.

Governing structures and productive social relations also flourish. The slums residents have nurtured strong collaborative networks, often across potentially volatile lines of caste and religion. Many cooperative societies work together with grass-roots associations to provide residents with essential services, such as basic health care, schooling and waste disposal, and tackle difficult issues such as child abuse and violence against women. In fact, they often compensate for the governments woeful inadequacy in meeting the needs of the poor.

Although it is true that these severely under-resourced self-help organisations have touched only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, it is important to acknowledge their efforts and agency, along with the simple fact that these communities, despite their grinding poverty, have valuable lives, warmth, generosity and a resourcefulness that stretches far beyond the haphazard and purely individualistic, Darwinian sort portrayed in the film.

Indeed, the failure to recognise this fact has already led to a great deal of damage. Bureaucrats have concocted many ham-handed, top-down plans for developing the slums on the basis of the dangerous assumption that these are worthless spaces. The most recent is the Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP), which proposes to convert the slums into blocks of residential and commercial high-rises. The DRP requires private developers to provide small flats (of about 250 square feet each) to families that can prove that they settled in Dharavi before 2000. In return for rehousing residents, the developers obtain construction rights in Dharavi. The DRP is being fiercely resisted by slum residents organisations and human rights activists, who see it an undemocratically conceived and environmentally harmful land-grab scheme. Real estate prices in Mumbai are comparable to Manhattans.

Though perhaps better than razing the slums with bulldozers which is not an unpopular option among the citys rich the DRP is far from a people-friendly plan. It will potentially evict some 500,000 residents who cannot legally prove that they settled in Dharavi before 2000, and may destroy thousands of livelihoods by rendering unviable countless household-centred businesses. If forced to move into congested high-rises, for instance, the slums potters and papad-makers, large numbers of whom are women, will lose the space they need to dry their wares. For the government, however, the DRP will rehabilitate Dharavi by erasing the eyesore and integrating its problem-population into modern, middle-class Mumbai. It is ironic that Slumdog, for all its righteousness of tone, shares with many Indian political and social elites a profoundly dehumanising view of those who live and work within the countrys slums. The troubling policy implications of this perspective are unmistakeably mirrored by the film. Since there are no internal resources, and none capable of constructive voice or action, all solutions must arrive externally.

After a harrowing life in an anarchic wilderness, salvation finally comes to Jamal, a Christ-like figure, in the form of an imported quiz show, which he succeeds in, thanks to sheer, dumb luck, or rather because it is written. Is it also written, then, that the other children depicted in the film must continue to suffer? Or must they, like the stone-faced Jamal, stoically await their own destiny of rescue by a foreign hand?

Indeed, while this self-billed feel-good movie of the year may help us feel good that we are among the lucky ones on earth, it delivers a patronising, colonial and ultimately sham statement on social justice for those who are not.

The film may have helped raise awareness among Americans that there are many in this world who have less than they. But it is unfortunate that such awareness must rest on the act of stripping the poor of their real power their power to resist and their power to make their own change.

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