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February 23, 2009
“Slumdog” sweeps Oscars, draws mixed reactions in India

The young stars of the Oscar-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire.”

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.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user KaushiK™ under a Creative Commons license.

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Comments

6 comments

#6

I would really be proud if above people who appreciate this movie would appreciate if something like this is propogated about their own country, because it is always fun to criticize about other’s country.

#5

If Mary’s argument is that the movie inspires others how to survive and be determined to achieve a goal of success, despite living in poverty, then the producers should present the movie with that intentions. How can a boy living in slums speak excellent English with American accent, this looks very superflous. If the producers really wanted to make a movie which inspires others, then they should had picked the story of the late Prime Minister of India, Lal Bahadur Shastri who was born in poverty, he used to cross over a river daily ( by swimming) in order to go to school in a village in Uttar Pradesh. He struggled in his life and ultimately became the the second Prime of the largest democracy of the world. Such real life stories will definitely inspire any one in the world and excel in life.

#4

It is interesting to first see India’s condemnation of the movie and now (after the winning of so many awards), the Indian acclaim and pride in the movie.
In the first instance, India was hurt and embarrassed by the showing of the Indian underbelly of social injustice and the caste system. Secondly, Indian nationalism rose up in pride at the winning of the Oscars.
I guess we have the romantic notion that the deep spiritual knowledge in the hands of a few Indians would somehow be reflected in a great society. In reality, Indian is just like the rest of us – just as human.

#3

When I saw this movie I kept reflecting on my personal experiences in Cambodia. It is difficult to explain to a privileged population some of the atrocities that the country still suffers from today. This is a truth that needs to reach a larger audience and I am happy that Slumdog Millionaire visually and emotionally depicted it. Although we want to reflect on the accomplishments of any country we cannot ignore those who get left behind. The term ‘dog’ speaks much truth, as street children who I have spoken to have told me they cannot understand why people treat them like dogs. Also, just because this movie received much appraisal does not mean that the director’s intention was to show India in a negative light. Maybe it was to highlight a situation that has been overlooked for far too long, and because it spoke much hidden truth it was greatly respected. So thank you, I am happy this information is getting out there.

#2

“Slumdog Millionnaire Sluming India’s Image in Poor Light:
First of all, I congratulate to all people involved in this movie and particularly to Mr. Rahman for winning Oscar awards and bringing laurels for himself, Bollywood and to the country. Howerver, I do not subscribe to the argument of this article titled ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ boosts Mumbai tourism”. Mumbai has its own historical importance and it is the financial and industrial hub of India. A major chunk of tax revenues go to the government from this city. The city has several tourist places apart from beaches. The development of Mumbai in last 5-10 years have been very rapid, outstanding and the pace of development is still continuing. The argument that Slumdog Millionnaire will bring toursim to Mumbai makes no sense to sagacious people like me. I have several concerns about this movie and the perceptions of the West about India.

I realized that this movie projects somewhat a negative image about India. Did this movie sell out Indian poverty to West? Does it mean that make a movie on Indian poverty or Mumbai slums, it will fetch Oscar awards? We, Non-resident Indians (NRIs), excel abroad and keep our flag very high by demonstrating our skills, intellegentia, hardwork, Indian culture and values. Indian institutions and government bodies recognize and honour NRIs every year for their excellent work carried out in other countries. On the other hand, Bollywood and Hollywood producers and directors make such movies on India , projecting somewhat a negative goodwill about India and get awards like Oscar in the West, thereby indicating and communicating to others that produce a movie on Slums and poverty of India and you stand high chances to win awards like Oscar in foreign lands.

My other question is how many times these people have produced movies on good things about India. May be many times but none of their movies earned Oscar? Why? Indian Middle class has progressed like anything in the world. Today, India has over 315 million middle class population which is perhaps more than the population of the US. Why people in other countries don’t appreciate that and recognize this excellent progress of India and Indian society?

Indian culture, values and Yoga have given a lot to Western countries. Today, more than 50% of corporate executives in the US alone practise Yoga to keep themselves fit and overcome their work stress. Perhaps there might have been movies on this, why Oscar awards were not considered?

Two years back Reader Digest, in its global survey, tried to project Mumbai as the rudest city in the world and New York the most behaved city though I severely criticized Reader Digest’s unscientific methodology used in that survey. My perception has been that many times Western societies prefer to read some negative images about India and its cities, for the best reasons known to them.

If husband and wife have quarrel at home, it does not mean that they should bring their quarrel on streets. They have to project themselves in front of othersas if they are good couples otherwise there is no family. Same way, yes, India has poverty ( which cannot be eradicated overnight), but it does not mean that it should be projected in such way to gain awards. Mumbai has some slum areas because people migrate from rural areas every year in search better life. At the same time, land is limited in Mumbai and resources available at the disposal of government are always limited, therefore, housing is an acute problem. However, in last five years, Maharashtra Government has done an excellent job in resettling the people from slum areas and thousands of families have been provided small houses. This work continues there and we hope that in next one decade, there will not be any slums in Mumbai.

At the end, I would say that this movie shows India in poor light.

#1

I enjoyed this movie immensely. People are missing the point. It’s a story of Love, Struggle, Poverty and Survival. All the above concepts are universal. If Indians feel offended that their county could be depicted this way, please…welcome to the real world. All, and I mean all countries of the world have slums, crime and poverty. What I gathered from this movie was, that a young man despite the poverty he lived in, was so intelligent, and determined to achive a goal of success. See, that is the problem, when a people, want to hide a negative aspect, to appear superior to others, they no longer are sincere, spiritual and honest. And that my friend is a problem…of humanity. Wonderful movie of survival!

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