Thursday, February 12, 2009

They Call It Poverty Porn

Slumdog Millionaire is sweeping awards and audiences. And yet, in India, specifically Mumbai, where it is set, there are rumblings of discontent. Okay, more than rumblings. Many are calling it poverty porn, graphic images of disturbing poverty opened up as entertainment for a predominantly Western gaze. Others are protesting the use of the word "dog," a huge insult for Indians. One of the biggest protests was in Dharavi, Asia's largest slum where the screenwriter lived for six months. Do they feel a sense of betrayal by someone they welcomed into their midst? Despite the fim-makers' intentions do they feel insulted by being called 'dogs?' Judge for yourself.



Here's a caveat: I have not watched the movie.

I can't bring myself to watch it. It's not because I am unaware of poverty in India. It exists, of course it does. It does so in horrifying, mind-numbing ways. And while I think some of the criticism is a bit over the top, I do understand it. India as presented to Western eyes is always a source of some discomfort to me. It's not that situations or events are necessarily fabricated...much of it is factual. It is the discomfort of an alien gaze, dissecting us from a rather lordly distance. And more than that, that these are the only images of India on film that make it into the consciousness of most Western film-goers.

We watched the Raj films in the 1980's, where dashing British officers rescued lily-white maidens from India's ubiquitous heat and dust. Is India hot and dusty? Yes! But it is also cold and snowy and mild and temperate. It is also the land of eternal snows and coastal waterways. In the Raj films India and its life under the British fell away beneath the weight of English nostalgia for the jewel in its crown.

Then, for a while we were ignored by film-makers, except for an occasional Merchant-Ivory film. But that was not wholly foreign, for Ismail Merchant was a Bombay boy. Then there were the splutters of 'Fire,' or 'Salaam Bombay.' The latter was also set in Bombay's slums and was made by Meera Nair and was a truly intimate look at life in a slum.

Here's another caveat: I have read Vikas Swarup's Q & A, upon which Slumdog Millionaire is based.



So I know the story and I don't remember as much violence and distress as I hear about in the movie (the opening torture scene, the acid blinding, etc.). Perhaps they were there but they melded into the book so much that I don't remember them three years later. I remember, while reading the book thinking that it was written almost as a screenplay. It's not a well-written book, but the concept is interesting and it was executed well. And there are definite changes from the story.

Even the central character's name has been changed. Ram Mohammad Thomas. An evocative Indianness, reminiscent of Amar, Akbar, Anthony. Those three names, markers of three religions, are stories within themselves in the book. Ram, therefore, typifies all of India and none of it. He symbolizes its three major religions and because he has all three names, none of them. He is in effect, India.

Slumdog's Jamal, on the other hand, becomes an easily graspable entity, a slumdog with a Muslim name.

I watched Danny Boyle on The Daily Show. He called it a love story, that Jamal wanted to sit in the gameshow chair long enough to be sure Latika saw him and so that they could find each other again. No matter how much he calls it a love story, the predominant images that most viewers seem to carry away are the images of violence and poverty. Those seem to be its predominant images from what I've heard about it.

And perhaps that is what its Indian detractors are responding to. Perhaps that is why, depsite all the great press (and the fact that despite all this I am sure it's a great movie) that I cannot make myself watch it. Perhaps when it is out on video I might watch it. But I can't right now amid all its hype.

Is it over-sensitivity, or is it a country cringing to watch itself yet again through alien eyes and feel its complexities being stripped away? Yes, there are movies about the Paris riots for instance, but there are also dozens of movies on its beauty and its romance.

Is it the discomfort of being measured against just one truth by a movie-watching world that will move on to the next big thing soon, and all it will remember about India are its slums and its human miserty and not much else?

I am not sure but I am thinking. And wondering.

9 comments:

Judy Bussey said...

Jawahara,

I am moved by your critique and will share it, in its entirety, with my Intercultural Communication class. We're discussing how culture impacts perceptions--and how negative stereotypes--or fixed perceptions--are perpetuated when constantly reinforced by pop culture. Many/most moviegoers won't explore for real truths.

I would also love to see a more balanced image of your great country.

I appreciate your honesty & ultimate objectivity.

Peace,
Judy

Jawahara said...

Gosh, thanks! Now I wish I had proofread the damn thing before posting it...but heck that's what blogging is about, huh?

BS said...

I watched the movie and didn't have a problem with any of it. I think it's been handled with a lot of sensitivity and empathy on the part of the filmmakers. But it also manages to be uplifting. The protestors are wrong on this one, in my opinion. And Amitabh Bachan is just mad because he was portrayed in the movie in a very amusing way.

Banta Singh said...

I will NOT watch the movie. Any movie that tries to depict India or aspects of Indian life is never going to meet my obviously biased bar for what the Indian story is. Anyone who even thinks for a second that the movie has been handled with care and empathy is clearly smoking the wrong shit and has never been poor in their life ever.

You can't call a poor man or any man a dog in India and think that they are just being true to the indignity of the poor man's life in India. We treat our dogs better than our poor and yet would be insulted in every religious way if anyone calls them dogs. No one likes to be caricatured by others especially not by the estwhile imperial bastards who in no small measure made India what it is today (both good and bad). Whenever a westerner makes a movie or writes a book or paints a picture of India they are responsible for all the baggage that comes with being a white westerner. It does not matter whether they are biased; they are and will always be. Perception is reality.

We don't need 'foriegners' to find our flaws and promote our inadequacies. And especially spare me the hack who tries to sell us as being ok. We can kick ourselves and sell ourselves and do everything else without them.

BS said...

Uh...Banta Singh... you DO know the book was written by an Indian, right?

BS said...

And just to put it in context - in the movie, the only time Jamal gets called a slumdog is by the police officer investigating his performance on the quiz show, and it's clearly shown that the man is being horrible and condescending towards Jamal. The entire movie is meant to contradict the name-calling.

Banta said...

BS, thanks for pointing out the nationality of the author and who calls whom a dog. I did know the first as I do read, contrary to the stereotype associated with my name.

No amount of context quoting by anyone would alter the fact that this particular movie is by the westerner for the westerners. It does not matter how bad the reality; the fact of the matter is that the entire narrative on India is now about the slums and the gangs. My co-workers ask me have you seen the movie. "Oh, it is so cool. I am so interested in India and this movie is so real. So unlike the bollywood kitsch. I hope it wins the Oscar." WTF, now everybody is an expert on India.

BS said...

Now you know how we Pakistanis feel when we're asked about terrorism!

naperville mom said...

Wow! I liked the term "poverty porn" and believe, it sums up the deal. I also like the term "gutter realism" picked up from an uncle who reads the New Yorker a lot:)

Thanks for sharing your perspective, and it was indeed, a delight to know that you've read the original manuscript by Vikas Swarup.