Saturday, February 21, 2009

Slumdog: Glamorization Of The Poor

It is just one more day to the 81st Oscar Academy Awards.

There are many award categories but all eyes are usually on the "Best Picture" award. "Slumdog Millionaire" is one of the "Best Picture" nominees that caught my attention. This movie has been nominated for 10 Academy Awards, quite a feat for a low budget movie, set and filmed in India by British Director Danny Boyle.

The movie is about the story of a young man from the slums of Mumbai who was on his way to the last question in the famous "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire" game show. His unexpected progress in the quiz show has aroused suspicion. Few could accept that a slum boy could have known so much or that he has been so lucky.

The general reaction towards the movie is just phenomenal and it has received tons of critical praises. I shall not go on with the plots lest I will be accused of being a spoiler. For now, I just want to go into a more sombre issue of child poverty.

The UN believes that there are 44 million children in India who are working when they should be schooling and they live in deplorable conditions in slums. That number is probably a conservative estimates as no one, not even the Indian Government, knows precisely how many children are growing up in slums, denied access to education and basic amenities.

Some of these children are trafficked and are forced to work or beg. Some of them inflicted with bodily harm so as to make them more 'effective' in begging. It is not uncommon to find children maimed or blinded and they are often abused, exploited or neglected.

The movie reveals much about life in the slums and gives an honest portrayal of child poverty. It has created lots of awareness for people outside India especially those in the West. However, the Indians are not particularly happy about it.

First of all, the title of the movie is considered offensive and derogatory to many Indians. "Slumdog!" Why dog and not other choice of words such as boy, child, kid or hero? In fact, a lawsuit has been filed against the movie makers for the inappropriate title.

The child actors of the movie, Rubina Ali and Azharuddin Ismail were plucked from one of Mumbai's slums to star in this Oscar-winning movie. Ironically, their lives have been greatly affected by the success of the movie.

Their families are upset as they feel that the actors were not adequately paid and that they continue to live in slums. In fact, Azharuddin is worse off now as their illegal hut was demolished by the local authorities and he now sleeps under a plastic tarpaulin sheet. They obviously need cash and not the Oscars.

The Indians are protesting against the movie portraying the darker aspects of life in their homeland. They are not proud that people outside are getting excited about their slums and digging in to find out more. Many of them are used to the glittering and escapism style of the typical Bollywood movies and they now find "Slumdog" harsh and unpolished.

Some of the Mumbai's poor also clearly unhappy about the movie. They protested with banners reading "Poverty for Sale" and "I am not a dog" outside the home of Anil Kapoor, one of the film's stars.

The local papers carry critical reviews on the movie and their headlines which say "Slum Slam" and "Poverty Porn" speak loudly of their displeasure.

On the other hand, the movie makers claim that they have paid the actors and their family money. They explained that the welfare for the children have been their top priority and for that reason, they have enrolled them in school.

The movie makers also said that they set up trust funds for the children but will not disclose the amount, other than saying it is substantial. They are concern that the disclosure will make the kids vulnerable to exploitation.

The movie is an adaptation from the book "Q&A" by Vikas Swarup. I have not read the book nor have I watched the movie. I am not sure if I will be more inspired by the book or the movie, but, my brief knowledge about the story is enough to sadden me. I am bothered by the millions others who are still trapped in poverty.

The slum kids live in conditions which are worse off than prisoners in many countries. Most of them will continue to do so for the rest of their lives. For crimes that they did not commit or will probably never commit, they have been sentenced to life imprisonment right from the time of birth.

I do not rule out that I might like the movie (yes, I very much would like to watch it soon). However, I am somewhat taken aback by the excitement shown in the west.

Are they thrilled because the movie helps to heighten the world's awareness on the suffering of the people living in the Indian slums?

Are they awakened because they never knew the slums existed while they whine about the slightest set back in their lives?

Are they disturbed because the film seems so real and contrasting

to their much cushier life which they have taken for granted?

Or perhaps it is just a simple case of glamorization of the poor leading to the hype awaiting to fade off?

When the viewers watch the labyrinthine Mumbai slums, their hearts are naturally drawn towards the slum people in the movie. They feel for the characters, they are moved by the story and they are inspired by the hope. However, it remains to be seen if the movie is going to make any difference to the majority of the Indian population who are living in grinding poverty. After the initial enthusiasm dissipates through time, "Slumdog" is probably just another piece of history in the silver screen industry.

I guess while the Indians prefer the extravagant melodramatic Bollywood movies, those outside enjoy taking a peek into something more real. The last time an Indian movie stirred a similar sensation was in 1982 when "Ghandi" was screened. The epic movie presented India's poverty, crime, corruption and communal tensions with little reservation. For that, the movie swept eight Oscars.

It is a pity that "Slumdog" is rated NC-16 here. The Singapore Board of Film Censors has explained that the higher rating is due the repeated use of several strong, course Hindi expletives. I can understand where they are coming from but for goodness sake, the so called 'course language' is in Hindi and few are likely to be affected by it. Besides, these unacceptable expressions are not shown in the the subtitles.

The Board could have exercised flexibility in lowering the rating to PG but warn the Hindi speaking viewers of the possible disturbing use of the language. Let the viewers exercise their discretion.

I personally feel that the movie will be an eye-opener to our youngsters. Life in Singapore can be tough, especially given the current recession. However, even if you are living in a small flat and earning a meager income, the movie can still sting you with a harsh reminder that you are to count your blessing. Compared to the poverty stricken slum dwellers, your spartan flat is their palace and you are their millionaire.

No matter what you are going through right now, cherish your blessings. You can't be worse than those miserable beings stuck in the slums.

If you have watched the movie, do share your thoughts.

Lastly, if you wish to know the outcome of the Academy Awards, tune in to the live telecast on Monday, 9am, on MediaCorp's Channel 5. You will also get a glimpse of the child actors who have been flown to L.A. to attend the Oscars.


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