Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Shantytowns of the mind

Indian Express, January 14, 2008

I have not yet seen Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle’s film that has picked up four Golden Globe awards. No, not even a pirated CD of it. I only watched some trailers on the net and read reviews. Like others, I wait for its release in India. Whether it now goes on to win one or several Oscars is anyone’s guess. What is certain is that the film has placed the Mumbai slum, and more specifically Dharavi, at the centre of the world’s entertainment stage.

Is that a bad thing? Remember the film City of God, the 2002 Brazilian crime drama set in the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro that exposed the dark underside of the violent existence of the urban poor? It got four nominations for the Oscars and one for the Golden Globe although it did not win either. But the film, although fiction, brought home a reality that perhaps Brazilians don’t necessarily want publicized.

Another “slum film”, so to speak, was Tsotsi, set in Soweto, the large sprawling settlement outside Johannesburg in South Africa, which won several awards in 2005. Again, like City of God, through a work of fiction, the life of people in that “slum” came alive to audiences across the world.

So what about our slums – constituting half of Mumbai and more than one third of most other cities in this country? Is it a bad thing that they are now the subject of films that go on to win awards? Perhaps not. Is there only one way of looking at the life of those who live in these wretched conditions? Or is it possible to show the worst but also appreciate the difference, the grit? If an “outsider” like Boyle depicts this difference, should we celebrate? Or be critical?

Slumdog Millionaire is a story, a gripping one we are told. And if through it the world gets a peek at an India inhabited by millions of people who continue to live their lives without clean water, or sanitation, or electricity, what is the problem? After all, everyone knows that even as we concentrate on fraud at the highest level in our most “shining” sector, and write about the recession that will affect the salaried class, the majority of Indians inhabit another space without the Sensex or job security.

If the film had not won awards, been feted in the West, what would have been our response? Would we have been angry that an “outsider” has dared to make a film about our poverty? Would we have lambasted Boyle and the scriptwriter for not really understanding urban poverty? Would we have dismissed the film as silly and superficial? Possibly.

But now that will never be so because Slumdog Millionaire is a hit. And even before it opens in India, its place in cinematic history has been assured. A few critics here might well slam it. But our middle class will lap it up. It is poverty couched in romance. It doesn’t challenge our beliefs. It leaves us celebrating the “spirit” of the poor and downtrodden much as Mumbai’s “spirit” is constantly celebrated after a terror attack when the city picks itself up and gets back to work.

But Slumdog Millionaire’s success raises some deeper questions. How do we depict poverty as writers, filmmakers, journalists? Is it fair to expect us all the time to give a full, balanced, sensitive portrayal? Or is it inevitable that we write, film, for our audiences? And if, as a byproduct, people are sensitized, so be it. Also, if they are annoyed, so be it. If we are considered exploitative, so be it.

When I wrote my book on Dharavi, (Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia’s Largest Slum) I was surprised to come across many stories of people who had done well for themselves despite the system. I also found no self-pity in the people I spoke to. They did not expect charity. They knew what they needed to do. Should I not have written about such people just because the problem that Dharavi represented, that of crushing urban poverty, still remained unaddressed? By writing about these rags to riches stories, was I romanticizing poverty, taking away the edge from it, allow people’s consciences to be assuaged? Or was it my task as a writer to depict as honestly as I could both the highs and the lows of the issue of urban poverty, and of the lives of the people who told me their stories? Who was I to judge whether the story of someone who remained condemned to remain in poverty was superior to someone else who had managed to pull herself up by the boot straps and make something of her life?

In the end you realise as a writer, a journalist or a filmmaker, that the best you can do is to shine a torch, a searchlight, on an entrenched problem. But the solution will not be found merely by that illumination. For that, there are many more steps to be taken.

Slumdog Millionaire has focused its lens on the children of India’s slums through a work of fiction. What we do to change their future is the non-fiction that has yet to be written.


suzanne said...

Thanks for being one of the few voices in Indian journalism defending this film and not just complaining that the west loves to see poverty porn. Sure that's true, but this is also a great story and the job of a novelist and film-maker is to tell compelling stories.

Why are middle and upper class people in India always so worried about their image abroad? It's because we want to comfortably continue ignoring the deprivation all around us and not face the hard work of addressing it.

(I'm very glad I discovered your blog today. I met you once a long time ago when I was a student doing a project on women and media.)

Kalpana Sharma said...

Thanks for your comment, Suzanne. I haven't yet seen the film. Plan to do so tonight. But some of the discussion in the Indian media has been completely over the top. I didn't realise so many people have such thin skins!!

Roomy Naqvy said...

Your blog is really great. I followed it from the PUKAR website,which I found from an article in New York Times and I wrote about PUKAR on my blog,

Great stuff!

Roomy Naqvy