Ever since the Oscar campaign for Slumdog Millionaire kicked off, the backlash stories have pretty much spread all over the world media like an infectious rash.
In the past two months, stories have emerged of the producers underpaying the child actors who starred in the movie, objections to the word “slumdog” in its title have been raised, people have cried foul because co-director Lavleen Tandon wasn’t on the ballot and hasn’t been in the limelight as much as director Danny Boyle, allegations of “poverty porn” have been leveled, etc. Lending a spot of intrigue to the whole backlash, of course, were rumors that it was orchestrated by Harvey Weinstein, who was shepherding the Kate Winslet-Ralph Fiennes starrer The Reader through an uncharacteristically barren awards season for the house of Miramax.
Then there were the high profile artistic differences / controversies: Amitabh Bachchan, the guy young Jamal idealized so much he would wade through poop for a chance to get his autograph, felt that Boyle & Co. were part of an international cabal headed by Satyajit Ray to portray India as a nation of starving beggars and further thought that Slumdog was old Bollywood in a new Hollywood bottle which was inherently unjust to the brilliance of Bollywood cinema (he much prefers the Filmfare Awards which has always recognized his Bollywood’s excellence); on the other side of the coin, some Western critics made the same comparison to Bollywood and found Slumdog just as lacking as those movies that made Bachchan’s name in Bolly-centric circles.
But as Slumdog Millionaire continued its slow and steady march to the big prize, the stories increasingly focused on the most visible symbols (after Dev Patel and Frieda Pinto, that is) of the movie: the little cherubs who played the youngest trio of Latika, Jamal and Salim. Specifically, the world’s attention zoomed in on Rubina Ali and Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail who played Latika and Salim respectively.
If you’ve seen the movie, you know exactly how natural and amazing these two kids were. Little Latika is spunky and sweet, shyly sharing chuckles with little Jamal and attempting to stand up for herself with little Salim before buckling under his more forceful personality. There’s a tiny scene under the flyover where Salim threatens her into holding a crying baby (so she can earn more money while begging) that I can’t get out of my mind.
These are images that are difficult for Indians, who see dozens of Latikas, Jamals and Salims every day on their streets and lanes, to swallow much less a Western audience. And while Rubina and Azhar are acting in that scene, what caught the media’s fancy is that they come from the same slums that the fictional Latika and Salim do.
Which is natural. It’s the most obvious hook to the Slumdog story.
The only problem is that to a lot of people, especially in the West, there is barely any context within which they can place these kids. Poverty of the kind you see in Slumdog Millionaire is something that happens far away and to other people. The images you see of poor brown people starving in another country are usually of them staring apathetically into the camera while their bodies waste away, their eyes already glazing over in the expectation of death. You never see these people do anything in these images. They’re just sitting there, too defeated to even swat away the flies that are teeming all over their faces.
To Indians, however, these are actual people. You can be snobbish about them, look past them, hate them, use them, abuse them, help them, do whatever you want – but you can’t ignore their living, breathing humanity.
Even if you belong to that group of people who think poverty is a condition to be blamed on the poor and you feel there is something inherently lazy or horrible about the poor, you still see them as real live people with real live human emotions – not mere images on TV. They work in your home, drive your car, sell you your magazines at the traffic signal, come to carry away your newspapers for recycling, sharpen your knives, do your laundry… the slums of India are full of people who are poor and who can barely afford to eat one square meal a day, but they are not people who’re sitting around waiting to die.**
Ripped of this context of a shared existence, the average Westerner (of whatever heritage) offering their view on the Eastern poor is so overcome with pity that their reflex action seems to be to strip away all humanity from them.
They’re immediately converted to some saintly version of what A Poor must be like – they can’t possible get angry or spiteful or lie or arrogant or anything remotely negative. And if they do, then it’s immediately the worst thing in the world EVER and can be blamed on them being poor or illiterate or from a third world country. However, if they’re sad or depressed or feel like crying about their fate while begging for help, then that’s okay because that’s performing to expectations.
Take for example, Azhar’s father – while the movie was in campaign mode, he complained that the producers had shortchanged his son. It was a big story about the terrible conditions that the kids lived in and how awful it all was and how Danny Boyle was a neocolonialist because he paid the kids far less than what the Fanning sisters or the Culkin kids would have been paid and how the kids deserved to live a better life right now instead of having all their money tied up in a trust fund that makes them go to school if they want to get they hands on it, etc.
On the face of it, those are all excellent points. I mean, what am I going to argue against? The kids do deserve a better life right now rather than ten years into the future. They did get paid a pittance compared to the average Hollywood salary. They should live in better homes rather than a crowded slum with no indoor plumbing. But to an Indian (most Indians anyway), the trust funds are a no-brainer – it means the kids are guaranteed an education, that the parents won’t take it for themselves, nobody can steal it from them and by the time the kids become adults, they can decide what to do with the fruits of their labors.
But what about Azhar’s father and his complaints that made such a splash? He’s an Indian, he’s actually from the slums, and he’s the father! Surely he knows better.
Well, a funny thing happened: a couple of months later the film wins 8 Academy Awards, the kids come home to a hero’s welcome and Azhar is so freaking tired of the whole rigmarole, he asks his father if he’s going to sell him to the media (with flair like that, Azhar is clearly Bollywood-bound). And the next day, as he sat outside his shack, he was clearly over the whole media experience and refused to give his five millionth interview about how wonderful everything was and how happy he was and how he expected rainbows and unicorns to come floating past his pillow everytime he closed his eyes.
So his father boxed his ears for being an annoying 10 year old.
Oh no, he didn’t! Lesson Every Poor Must Learn: bitching about white filmmaker establishing trust funds for your kid, okay; disciplining your kid the way you’ve always disciplined him, big no-no!
Out went the old, poverty-stricken, living in a shack, Azhar’s TB-ridden dad who needs justice now – in came horrible, physically abusive, illiterate, Muslim, third-world Azhar’s dad who wants to make a fast buck off his little kid because he’s too lazy to go out there and get a job for himself.
Far be it from me to shield a man who beats his child, but maybe the lesson to be learned from this is to leave the kids alone. They’ve had a rollercoaster ride of it, they’ve seen things and experienced events that most kids their age, whatever their family’s circumstances, would never undergo in a million years, and now they’ve got to get back to life as it’s usually lived.
There are people who think taking kids like Azhar and Rubina to L.A. was a cruel thing to do, exposing them to a world so far removed from their own, one that they have very little hope of touching ever again – I think it was a wonderful thing to do. For once in their lives they got to be on the other side of the door and even if they grow to resent it in the end, at least this was one opportunity that wasn’t denied them just because they were poor. The fact that they acted in the movie has changed their lives forever as Rubina’s story illustrates. If they’re going to face the downside of it, why not its best parts as well?
And what really kills me about all this is that it comes in the wake of a movie like Slumdog Millionaire, which is full of people who live in poverty but are a whole lot of other things. It’s like that part of the movie just flew over everybody’s head.
** I should note here that the opposite is also true. There are no doubt tons of Indians who’ve never met an African American in their life but are convinced that they haunt the cities of America waiting for a chance to mug you, deal drugs, kill you or perhaps break into a hip hop routine or shoot hoops.