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The 'Slumdog' fight

Some say the Oscar contender is 'poverty porn,' but that criticism misconstrues the nature of art.

February 04, 2009|Chitra Divakaruni | Chitra Divakaruni is the author of, most recently, "The Palace of Illusions." She serves on the board of Pratham.

Success spawns uproar. Great success spawns great uproar. This has certainly been the case with the film "Slumdog Millionaire." It may or may not win the Oscar for best picture, but it's already carried away the prize as the most hotly debated film of the season.

I'm going to set aside the question of "Slumdog's" cinematic merits (which I and many film critics worldwide agree are numerous) and focus on the charge that has been popping up on a number of blogs: that the movie is "poverty porn." As I understand it, this accusation boils down to three issues, all of which have misconstrued the nature of art.

These critics are angered by the fact that hordes of Pepsi-sipping, popcorn-munching, affluent Western audiences are entertained by a spectacle of India's poor struggling for survival in the slums of Mumbai. They're also upset that director Danny Boyle, a white guy, is being lauded for a film about India that just doesn't get it right, that's filled with cliches and exaggeration and people who are downright bad. And last, they say the film reinforces centuries-old stereotypes about India -- dirt, poverty, chicanery and worse (think Macaulay, think Kipling) -- and doesn't show the real India, the modern India with its economic successes, the India of the reverse brain-drain, India shining.

To answer the first criticism, I'd like to point out that the film is entertaining almost as many affluent people in India as in the West -- if by affluent, we mean people whose economic status is significantly better than that of the slum dwellers. And for many of them, the Dharavi slum in Mumbai is a foreign, unseen country. Literally for some, because they live in neighborhoods that, though only miles away from an urban slum, are worlds apart; metaphorically for others, because painful, persistent realities tend to become invisible to us. As for being fascinated by the misadventures of characters who are beleaguered, and feeling better about our lives by contrast, isn't that part of the timeless pull of art? Isn't that why Aristotle praises tragedy for its cathartic value?

As to the objection that only Indians (preferably, only Indians living in India) can truly understand the complexities of their country and show an authentic India, that too arises out of a misunderstanding of the nature of art. Decades of abuse from Orientalist writers who have objectified and denigrated India in order to promote an agenda of Western superiority have fostered this mind-set.

But the world is different now. It has moved past colonialism -- and even post-colonialism, I dare say -- into globalism. It is a world in which we can know more about each other -- and hear each other's uncensored voices. Thus, it is now far more possible for artists, regardless of their race, to create a valid representation of a culture, if they have done their homework and are passionate about portraying the truth as they see it. It will not be the whole truth, particularly in the case of a roiling, complicated and contradictory culture such as India's.

But I don't think art aims at that. It aims at portraying a slice of life honestly, uniquely and memorably. And if, through what we read or view, we have understood even one life better -- and bettered our understanding of our own existence and our connection to others -- the artist deserves our admiration and thanks.

Those who claim that "Slumdog" is filled with exaggerations and cliches need to remember that this is fiction. In documentaries, exact representation, uncolored by personal beliefs, might be the goal; in feature films (and fiction and painting), it isn't necessarily so. When one accuses "Slumdog" of exaggerations and caricatures, it is similar to accusing Van Gogh of distorting his sunflowers or M.F. Husain, one of India's foremost living artists, of not getting his horses' colors right. In "Slumdog," Boyle is following the convention of the picaresque, a genre that depicts with energetic abandon the many misadventures of a hero, usually of low social class, who ultimately triumphs over a corrupt society by using his wits.

But, in fact, are the details exaggerated in the film? Ask the volunteers of Pratham, a nonprofit organization that has been working in the Dharavi slum since 1994, spreading literacy through their modest, single-room balwadis (slum schools), and they will tell you of children forced to work 12-hour factory shifts for a payment of two daily meals; children beaten by parents, employers and the police; and yes, children orphaned, kidnapped or mutilated. And then they will tell you of the amazing rescues they've performed, of children now educated, placed in safe homes, vocationally trained or entering college.

One of the aims of art is to hold up a mirror to society in the hope that uproar will lead to change. Charles Dickens did this successfully -- novels such as "David Copperfield" led to child-labor reform in Victorian England. Sarat Chandra Chatterjee's early 20th century novels, such as "Palli Samaj," inspired a movement in Bengal that bettered the condition of widows.

Perhaps "Slumdog" will be the catalyst for a similar transformation, one that will make India shine for more of its people. It is certainly possible. Perhaps, even, it is written. But that depends on what we, the viewers and the world, choose to do next.

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