In Mumbai, the setting for Slumdog Millionaire, residents have mixed reactions to the film–some are thankful for the film’s pulsing, life-affirming portrait of their city, and others accuse it of reveling in India’s shame.

What I find odd is the cultural amnesia about a certain 1988 film called Salaam Bombay. The Washington Post article makes comments like:

“‘Slumdog’ is perhaps the first mainstream movie since Richard Attenborough’s 1982 epic ‘Gandhi’ — which won eight Oscars — to present an unflinching portrait of India’s abject poverty, its crime, corruption and communal tensions.”

and

“It’s almost unheard of for Bollywood filmmakers to shoot in the labyrinthine poverty of the Mumbai’s slums. India’s film industry is better known for its rollicking, four-hour, song-and-dance extravaganzas, which are escapist, melodramatic fairy tales that are typically filmed in Switzerland, Australia or New Jersey.”

I suppose Salaam Bombay! was technically neither “mainstream” nor “Bollywood,” but it was hardly obscure. Nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Salaam Bombay! was the first feature film directed by Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake). I’ve previously described it to people as “Slumdog Millionaire without the happy.” If anything, it’s a much harsher portrait of poverty in the Mumbai slums. We can discuss which approach–Slumdog‘s or Salaam‘s– is more effective (and maybe I will, in a future post!), but it’s not as if there’s never been another movie about poverty in India. Why do we forget so quickly?


5 Comments

  1. It’s funny. The wealthy in India criticize Slumdog as offensive for deigning to show that there are slums in Mumbai. Americans have criticized the film for glamourizing the slums. I’m blown away that people even think the movie is about the slums or makes any kind of statement about the slums.

    So far as I could tell, the film was about three things: destiny, love, and joy. Sure there were tangential themes (e.g. brother camaraderie and rivalry, class distinction, etc.) and the backdrop of the slums is unavoidable, but the movie wasn’t about the slums and didn’t make any statement about India’s having such slums.

    If the wealthy in India are appalled that foreigners might behold the poverty in their midst, perhaps they should work harder to eliminate the poverty in their midst.

    The Danes last blog post..20081119.ChurchLies

  2. Dear sir,

    If you say, showing slums is being reacted upon by the rich class, it’s insincere.

    The rich class may not be helpful to poor class. That’s okay. But, the movies of real poverty are not liked by poor classes themselves.

    Reasons for it are uncountable. There are the persons who asks his/ her kids to suck the thumb while going to sleep, for not having any milk to feed.

    If me calling the ‘poors’ as ‘persons’ seems offbeat I am helpless. They are persons. Isn’t it?

    Reality seekers of today’s world don’t want to read the fictions. But, then they don’t want reality to be presented as reality. They want to see the reality as they want to see it. Thus reality becomes fiction in the dress of the reality.

    I will explain this. Read O Henry’s fictions written in the era of recession. It’s entertainment value was never discounted. Now, the English reader won’t enjoy similar fictions. What they need is reality. Reality on the screen. Is anyone ready to step into the pits full of mosquitoes, there in the slums? Yuck! Isn’t it? That’s why reality becomes fiction.

    Remove the smoke screen. We are not seeking the reality. We are seeking for new and creative way to entertain ourselves. Slums – Who cares?

    There’s no objection one entertaining himself. Whatever entertains him, let it be. But just don’t critisize the critisicsm. It hurts. They don’t stop you to capitalize your creativity utilizing their poverty. After that don’t expect much from them. You can’t heal their wounds showing their miseries on the silver screen.

    It’s the class who pays cheap price and watches the dreams on the screen in India. They watch ‘what they will never be.’ Exactly opposite to the concept ‘what they should never be’. The latter one entertains those who love to watch so called ‘reality’.

    Ask to the slums about “Slumdog Millionaire” they won’t respond you. They don’t know what it is. This is the reality. We should NOT face it. The distance from where we are watching it, creations are awesome. Go ahead, the picture becomes awful.

    Better we don’t brag, admit, we can never watch the reality.

    Regards
    Suhas Bokare

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful and heartfelt response to these our own thoughts about the interplay between Slumdog Millionaire and the people of India, both those the film depicts and those wealthy who, in the words of the referred-to article “proclaim the film offensive for its focus on the darker aspects of Indian life.”

    Much of what you say is true. Reality is something that we all distort through the various fictions we concoct simply by the way we perceive the world around us. We are subjective beings in the way we perceive, so even when we seek to view things honestly, we are by our natures forced to see a fictitious representation of reality.

    Of course, this does not mean that some perspectives are not more faithful in presenting an accurate view of reality. Sometimes, people (as you suggest) construct new—or fictional—realities in order to shield themselves from a truth too hurtful to bear. I think one point where my perspective and yours depart is that I think that in many cases, it is our responsibility reveal to people the fictions to which they cling.

    You say that criticism hurts and this is true. Of course it does. That is part of the power of criticism. In causing hurt, criticism allows us to see the flaws in our perspectives and develop less deeply hurtful ways to interact with the world around us. This is why we criticize the criticizers and anyone else who needs criticism.

    Because it is the right thing to do.
    ________________________________________________

    And also: of course people who are poor are persons. I can’t remember us thinking otherwise.

    The Danes last blog post..20081119.ChurchLies

  4. Considering the theme of your forum, I’ve been musing, from a Reformed perspective, the lessons “Slumdog Millionaire” offer us, and have been contrasting that with “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Both are, to use the hackneyed expression, “life-affirming,” but I am – curiously – regarding “Slumdog” as being quite compatible with the gospel of Christ.

    In short, the beloved “Wonderful Life,” starring the unanimously sympathetic Jimmy Stewart as the even more sympathetic George Bailey, is set up as a masterful example of a fellow who finds favor with God by means of a series of good works. This is detailed in the pre-angelic bestowal “orientation” Clarence receives as George’s deeds are recounted, telling us, the audience, how meritorious his selflessness is.

    The power of prayer is affirmed, but of course the nature of the prayers themselves follow along the lines of imploring God to help George because of what a good guy he is. This is a message that continues to resonate with nearly all of us, myself included, because such teaching is supportive of our reflexive sense of personal merit as justice, which I would argue, is an outgrowth of national obsession and self-sufficiency. “It’s a Wonderful Life,” as marvelous as it is, is more a reflection of our civil religion rather than an explication of redemption as laid out in the Bible.

    “Slumdog” has no such good-guy-gets-ahead-because-he’s-nice conceit. The young man sits in the game show chair that is both judgment (not to mention his interrogation!) and review without a claim to good works, knowledge, personal character — his only plea is “it is written.”

    For the Christian, there are many lessons to be drawn: in every circumstance in which he was placed, God had an overt and specific purpose, as evidenced by the memories triggered by the game show questions. At the crucial moment when circumstance, worldly support (e.g., “phone-a-friend”) failed him, his quietly confident declaration of “it is written” is a vindication for those of us who are truly relying on God for our very sustenance.

  5. Jan,

    I have not actually seen “Slumdog” yet, so I can’t speak to that part of your comment, but I am very interested in the analysis you give of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It certain does seem like it promotes a “civil religion.” I had a student in a class last semester who wrote a fairly interesting paper on this film, and in it she pointed out that the central, life affirming message of the film (which is essentially that family and people are worth more than material goods/greed/wealth/etc) is undermined by the fact that in the conclusion, Steward is given money by the townspeople. It is as if the ending couldn’t truly be happy if Bailey merely learned to love others, he must love others and be financially successful. And that, to me, sounds just like our American civil religion.

    I suppose I didn’t contribute much to your comment, but all I meant to say was I think you’re spot on about “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

    Alan Nobles last blog post..Walking in the (Computer Screen) Light

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