Danny Boyle’s feel-good love story “Slumdog Millionaire” won eight Oscars Sunday night, including Best Picture and Best Director. Set in Mumbai, India, the film tells the story of 18-year old Jamal Malik, an orphan from the slums, who wins big on the Indian version of the show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”
While celebrated internationally, the movie has faced criticism in India. Slum-dwellers in Mumbai, where the movie was shot, have protested the word “dog” in the title. Others in India have criticized “Slumdog” because its depiction of Mumbai focuses entirely on poverty.
Journalist John Elliot describes the celebrations of “Slumdog” around Mumbai, as well as its wider reception in India:
As I write, reporters and commentators on every India tv news channel are tumbling over themselves in an ecstasy of superlatives as they try to match the success with words. Television sets are on all over India, including in Dharavi and Garibnagar (see pic), whipping up a mood of national celebration that is usually reserved for cricket victories against Pakistan…
Perhaps inevitably, Slumdog has been widely criticised in India because the flip side of all the success is a national unwillingness to accept anything that is even slightly negative or critical (as I have often discovered on this blog). So both the words slum and dog have been attacked, as has the portrayal of the uglier side of Indian life.
Blogger “Lekhni” believes this criticism stems from the discomfort that middle-class Indians feel towards “the other” India:
I wonder if our main objection to the movie is because it depicts a part of India we’d rather not focus on. We’d like to celebrate our economic growth and our resurgent middle class. We’d like to point to our new malls and glass-fronted buildings. The movie does not show much of the prosperity of middle class India. It shows the other India that not many of us know very well, or would like to think about – the poor India that has remained poor despite all the recent economic growth.
A blogger of “Voice from a 2.5 World Country” disagrees, arguing that poverty remains the enduring, but increasingly inaccurate, image of India:
This is the only India the world knows about, and that as anybody living in this country who has a functioning pair of eyes, ears and nose, knows about. How many times in a millisecond must we be reminded that this is India ‘too’? How many times? In fact, this is so ingrained into the Westerner’s psyche, that when my American friends came to India to visit, their first question to me coming out of the airport driving into the city was: ‘We feel let down. Where are all the poor people?’. Because shock of shocks, there is some part of India which does not look like Dharavi.
Blogger Juan Cole finds fault in the film’s focus, not on poverty, but on the crime in Mumbai slums:
That the film depicts an one-dimensional view of the poorer areas of Bombay is undeniable. There are Fagins and pimps, gangsters and corrupt building contractors, courtesans and orphans. But poor neighborhoods in India are a dense thicket of social and economic networks, with a working class, shopkeepers, peddlers, and other responsible if poor citizens toiling to eke out an honest living. The film eschews the urban working class for an unrealistic focus solely on the criminal element. Extortion rackets exist. But they prey on small restaurants and shops. If there were no honest workers or businesses, there would be no way to extract protection money.
Foreign Policy magazine has compiled a photo essay “India’s Real-World Slumdogs,” featuring the thriving businesses in the slums of Mumbai.