Why does everything have to be about poverty?


Lekhni wonders why ‘Indians’ hate Slumdog Millionnaire. I can’t speak about ‘Indians’, but I can speak about why I didn’t like it. There are 2 specific reasons:

The first – is that..it is… a BAD movie. Not an ok movie, not a so-so movie, but a badly made movie, with extremely poor dialogue, absolutely no logic and a stupid story.

The second is, as her mumbaikar friend mentioned –

“Why do they only show the poverty?”, she wondered. “Why don’t they show all of Mumbai  instead of focusing just on Dharavi?”

I’ll tackle this second part later. Let’s deal with the first.

It’s true the movie focuses on the slums, but that’s what its story is about.  It’s also true that Danny Boyle manages to show every symbol of India that the West focuses on – the slums, the call centers and the Taj Mahal.  He somehow missed out on the snake charmers and the Great Indian rope trick, but he got everything else in.  But then I am not surprised – it’s easier for someone new to India to stick to clichés rather than try to comprehend all of the complexity that India is.

But is that why people dislike the movie? Because it is full of clichés ?  Shouldn’t we expect that?  Aren’t Bollywood movies full of stereotypes too – the chain-smoking, hard-drinking villain, the honest hero, the innocent, beautiful, heroine and so on?

Umm… so… are we performing some kind of charity work here? Why are we, as viewers ‘forgiving’ this director for his inability to come up with something new or innovative and stick to cliches? Is that why you watch movies? To donate money to some poor hard-up director? It’s almost like: ‘Gee, White Person, we’re just so grateful you turned your blue eyes on India, we don’t mind that you depicted us as savages, we just want the attention’. Further, YES – this crappy movie was JUST like any mainstream Bollywood movie, complete with bad acting and logical fallacies in the ‘plot’ and awful stereotypes. So it is in inexplicable to me, what exactly it is about this movie that makes it deserve anything better than the treatment an Akshay Kumar movie would get at the Oscars…

The movie is disquieting, but I realized a large part of my disquiet stems from the fact that it’s a possible tale.

???!???!??!??!??? Possible? To quote from one of my favourite movies – Die Hard 2 – “How can the same shit happen to same guy twice?” Or something like that. In this movie, this ONE guy swims thru shit for an autograph, then loses his mother to hindu-muslim riots, then almost gets his eyes burnt out, then gets thrown from a train, then gets used as child labour by an idiot german couple, then loses the love of his life to his brother,  then becomes a chaiwala at a call centre, then becomes an expert hacker at a call centre which apparently contains the names and addresses of all the latikas in India, then becomes the ‘dishwasher’ to a gangster, and then goes on a TV show, and then gets tortured by the police, then wins 2 crore rupees and then gets the girl.

I envy the optimism of people who say that this ‘disquieting’ tale is….possible. Of course, the counter to my little rant is that it’s all ‘symbolism’ of what happens in India. Jamal is meant to ‘represent’ the average poor person and what s/he goes through. Really? I mean… seriously? This is what poor people in India go through? AWESOME! Coz I can’t even get my driving license made, living in my cushy apartment, and these poor slumdogs are out making 2 crore rupees! Oh what a ‘hard-hitting’ movie.

It shows the other India that not many of us know very well, or would like to think about – the poor India that has remained poor despite all the recent economic growth.

This is the only India the world knows about, and that as anybody living in this country who has a functioning pair of eyes, ears and nose, knows about. How many times in a millisecond must we be reminded that this is India ‘too’? How many times? In fact, this is so ingrained into the Westerner’s psyche, that when my American friends came to India to visit, their first question to me coming out of the airport driving into the city was: ‘We feel let down. Where are all the poor people?’. Because shock of shocks, there is some part of India which does not look like Dharavi. But that is, of course, fake India. Let us devalue what our forefathers achieved by leaving their properties and money behind in Pakistan, and surviving the threats and deaths of Partition to start again in India with nothing in their pocket and 8 mouths to feed. Let us ignore that achievement. Let us not celebrate it. For that is the ‘fake India’. In the real India, everything is horrible. Not One Good Thing can happen here. It is not Real.

The truth is, that this movie is what you might call Poverty Porn. It manages to objectify and create this distance between the viewer from the subject, yet all the while pretending to be reality. It’s just like watching naked men and ladies doing their thing on video. You watch it, and it’s real sex, and without actually knowing anything about it, you think – hmm, this is sex.

It’s the same thing with this – you see the slums, and you see people going through hard times, and you’ve heard about hard times, and you know poor people live harshly – so you watch this and think – hmm this is ‘reality’ or ‘possible’ .

However, just like everybody in the porn movies have enlarged penises, and they cut and edit scenes for ‘maximum effect’ so too does this movie have its versions of enlarged penises . For example, Jamal jumping into a pile of shit. That one scene sums up completely what is wrong with the movie. No self-respecting person, even a poor one would do that – this is one of the things that the people in Dharavi objected to – how can you show them as some disgusting savages. They are human beings too.  But no. Someone somewhere heard something about people being desperate to see Amitabh Bachchan. That something, coupled with Danny Boyle’s obsession with Faeces (please refer to Trainspotting) gives rise to this scene. And our poverty porn watchers lap it up and say – ‘Yes. This is how desperate humanity is, in this country. This what they would do’. Much the same way that regular porn watchers look at men and women go at it in all sorts of ridiculous positions, and say much the same thing.

That aside I would like to ask people – was this movie depicting ‘reality’ or was it a fantasy? Which is it? Or do we just suspend our reasoning faculty whenever the director wants us too, to ‘cut him some slack’.

People of Bombay – how possible is it for a woman to be abducted like that from the middle of VT station? And then tossed into a car that can actually speed away?? In bombay traffic? You must be joking.

How come the call center that Jamal works at has the names of addresses of all India?

Since when did the host of KBC becomes such an annoying asshole, and start publicly ridiculing a contestant?

What was our favourite blue kid holding a bow & arrow doing in the middle of riot where people were being slashed apart? Attending a fancy-dress ball?

And on and on and on. And don’t even get me started on the dialogues. Sheesh.

  • ‘You tell the truth too much to be a liar’
  • ‘I am at the center of the center
  • What will we live on? Love.

This is some of the most God-awful dialogue I have ever heard. After all of these reasons, I cannot for the life of me understand how this movie can be rated alongside other movies which actually consist of directors and actors making an effort to produce a work of art.

I hope this movie is laughed off the stage at the Oscars, but hopefully that Rahman gets his due for having spend 20 years producing beautful music.


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