When the Party’s Over

01 Mar


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.


Posted by on March 1, 2009 in Entertainment, Movies, Newsmakers


20 responses to “When the Party’s Over

  1. memsaab

    March 1, 2009 at 5:21 pm

    Well said, Amrita, well said!

  2. ana

    March 1, 2009 at 6:58 pm

    As always. . .*agreeing with memsaab*

  3. post-punk cinema club

    March 1, 2009 at 8:20 pm

    What a wonderful post! As always: comprehensive, clear-headed and incisive.

    And that photo! Poor Azhar! Not only violently scolded… but your scolding is now preserved on the INTERNET.

    Laughed at your line about Big B and the evil Satyajit Ray Conspiracy of making India look bad. Heeee…

  4. M

    March 1, 2009 at 10:14 pm

    so so correct – this needs to be publicised more. But do you think *any* media house worth its salt will leave the kids alone? And yes, their parents will try to make money off them, and yes, that’s normal too…sigh. The more things change etc.

    M (disillusioned with human nature)

  5. apu

    March 2, 2009 at 2:03 am

    phew. did you leave any angle untouched? but yes, the kids do need to be left in peace. not a fan of beating kids, but its quite ridiculous to object simply because the kid belongs to an oscar-winning team. what are they going to do, monitor his life over the next 10 years?

  6. Prasanth

    March 2, 2009 at 3:56 am

    Kudos for this insightful post Amrita!
    The whole slapping episode was a disgrace especially with the Indian media covering it in the hope that the story would be picked up in West. And Renuka Chowdhary stepped in and decided to order an inquiry!
    As you pointed out, this is no defense of child beating but where do people think they live? Disneyland?

  7. MomGoneMad

    March 2, 2009 at 10:00 am

    You said it, lady. As usual.

    @ Prasanth: LOL. Renuak Chowdhary ordered an inquiry? Really? I’m sure that worked well in convincing everyone in the “west” that poor (or rich for that matter) Indian people don’t give their kids tight slaps when they are considered insolent! Quite sure that the “west” now thinks that inquries are de rigeur when slumkids get tossed about. Somebody give these folks an out of body experience so they can see how stupid they really are!

    Thats what really annoys me most about the SM-brouhaha. Right from the time of release, its been about how we are “seen” in the West. Do we really give a toss? Shit happens in India, but it happens everywhere – just another shit flava in the west is all.

  8. Sujatha

    March 2, 2009 at 10:53 am

    I still can’t get over the incredibly diverse events those little brains are having to process, Amrita. All packed into the span of a few days.

    Have linked up to this post.

  9. Lak

    March 2, 2009 at 11:47 am

    Brought tears to my eyes looking at that poor boy crying. Poverty and ignorance go hand-in-hand.
    It’s a daily struggle for these people. The father was trying to cash-in on the new found fame of his child, which i think is not so bad because for them it’s the question of survival. But , that does not justify in any way the beatings gotten by the child from his father. But then, what would you expect out of a muslim father who goes on to procreate till the end of his life and is too poor to provide for them and take care of them? It’s a deep rooted religious, political, socio-economic issue we are dealing here with.
    All i hope is that the child is given positive media attention and bollywood gives him a chance to survive and make it through all adversities just like in SdM.

  10. pitu

    March 2, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    Beautifully written, Amrita. I can’t get over poor Azhar being slapped. He lives with an alcoholic father. Bet it’s not the first time or the last he (or his family) has been beaten up.

    When I see the kind of obnoxious behavior of parents towards kids (or husbands towards wives or whatever really) in slums, I go into full Sanjay Gandhi mode. I know it’s unrealistic as well as morally gray but I cannot help it. After all, violence towards women and children is also wrong, no?

    Sterilization is a good idea :-p

  11. Ebrahim Kabir

    March 2, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    Well written it’s a pity that a genre of Bollywood remade with stye by a Brit created so much noise for the negative reasons in India.

    It’s definitely no masterpiece but a good film nonetheless

  12. Prasanth

    March 3, 2009 at 1:35 am

    Come now, Indian parents never beat their children. They sit with their kids and impart the intricacies of karma and yoga to them and instruct them in the secrets of the never ending circle of good and evil!

  13. Amrita

    March 3, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    Memsaab & Ana – thank you 🙂 I just wish the subject was something happier.

    PPCC – God, he’s going to see it forever, isn’t he? His one interaction with dear old dad, always available on the internet for his kids to google.
    As for AB – it boggles my mind when someone like him or Nargis go off on Satyajit Ray. The man was making movies on a budget that was probably their make-up man’s salary but they have to pick on him? He’s AMITABH BACHCHAN, the man kids wade through poo for, but there he is, whining about getting no respect. Geez.

    M – I wonder if the govt will hold an inquiry about child labor now? 🙂

    Apu – if I did, I’m sure someone on these wild internets is sure to come and tell me all about it!
    You know right now is the perfect time to leave them alone because they’re clearly tired of it. If they start thinking this is how life is going to be then thats when the problems start for the rest of their lives.

    Prasanth & MomGoneMad – what will they do? Take a morcha to the slums and ask for Azhar to be brought up according to proper Bharatiya Sanskriti? I would LOVE to see that spectacle unfold! 😀

    Suj – thankee kindly! I keep thinking that if these kids were from a middle class home, it’s still going to be an immense shock to the system – like it was for the other three kids who were also there. Or even for Dev Patel for that matter, judging by his face. Hell, it’d be a shock to you or me, come to think of it. I’m glad they got a chance to experience it.

    Lak – I don’t think Azhar’s father’s into procreation any more. I think he’s a lot more into the drink. As for Bollywood helping him out – have you seen the movie? Nobody’s helping this kid out.

    Pitu – Aiieeeee! It’s your Sultaniyat speaking! 😀

    Ebrahim – I don’t get the hysteria either way: why is it so important for people to protest / claim it as Indian?

  14. Sujatha

    March 3, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    “Hell, it’d be a shock to you or me, come to think of it.”

    That’s exactly what the husband and I thought too.

  15. bird's eye view

    March 4, 2009 at 5:22 am

    That poor kid. His face in this picture breaks my heart – he looks so betrayed.

  16. Sarah

    March 4, 2009 at 8:23 am

    “what would you expect out of a muslim father”

    Lak, get a life – don’t other religious denomination people chastise their kids in teh slums and elsewhere? and what’s more shocking is that no-one has objected or bothered to comment on your muslim bashing.

  17. Amrita

    March 4, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    Suj – yup.

    bev – well, so would you really if you got slapped in front of the media 😀

    Sarah – ah, you must be new to the experience… as far as muslim bashing goes, Lak is on the mild side. I suggest you conserve your energy until the genocide advocates show up. Thanks for speaking up, though – we get a little blase around here so it’s always nice to see new blood.

  18. Allytude

    March 4, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    Did I really read that “muslim father” comment. Wow. Actually that comment kind of explains the whole slumdog situation. Its an attitude of “lets create an issue, and ascribe some other cause to it”.

  19. Filmi Girl

    March 5, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this post! Thank you! 🙂

    I’d seen those stories about the “Slumdog” kids and I appreciate your context.

  20. Amrita

    March 6, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    Allytude – try reading the comments on the articles I’ve linked to, both with the pic and the second inline link. It’s actually more lazy thinking – find an event and then find a larger more general issue that it fits into and voila! Everything bad that happens in India is because of caste, everything bad that happens in CHina is because of communism, everything bad that happens in America is because of capitalism, etc.

    FilmiGirl – I live to serve 😀

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