Caught on film: India ‘not shining’
Arundhati Roy, India's celebrated writer of the novel 'The God of Small Things', that received a Booker Prize in 1997, is also India's very vocal social activist. Below is her piece on Slumdog Millionaire, which 'debunks the hype surrounding' the Oscar-winning film.
The night before the Oscars, in India, we were re-enacting the last few scenes of Slumdog Millionaire. The ones in which vast crowds of people – poor people – who have nothing to do with the game show, gather in the thousands in their slums and shanty towns to see if Jamal Malik will win. Oh, and he did. He did. So now everyone, including the Congress Party, is taking credit for the Oscars that the film won!
The party claims that instead of India Shining it has presided over India 'Achieving'. Achieving what? In the case of Slumdog, India's greatest contribution, certainly our political parties’ greatest contribution is providing an authentic, magnificent backdrop of epic poverty, brutality and violence for an Oscar-winning film to be shot in. So now that too has become an achievement? Something to be celebrated? Something for us all to feel good about? Honestly, it's beyond farce.
And here’s the rub: Slumdog Millionaire allows real-life villains to take credit for its cinematic achievements because it lets them off the hook. It points no fingers, it holds nobody responsible. Everyone can feel good. And that’s what I feel bad about.
So that’s about what’s not in the film. About what’s in it: I thought it was nicely shot. But beyond that, what can I say other than that it is a wonderful illustration of the old adage, ‘there's a lot of money in poverty’.
Slumdog Millionaire does not puncture the myth of ‘India shining'— far from it. It just turns India 'not-shining' into another glitzy item in the supermarket. As a film, it has none of the panache, the politics, the texture, the humour, and the confidence that both the director and the writer bring to their other work. It really doesn’t deserve the passion and attention we are lavishing on it. It's a silly screenplay and the dialogue was embarrassing, which surprised me because I loved The Full Monty (written by the same script writer).
Politically, the film de-contextualises poverty – by making poverty an epic prop, it disassociates poverty from the poor. It makes India’s poverty a landscape, like a desert or a mountain range, an exotic beach, god-given, not man-made. So while the camera swoops around in it lovingly, the filmmakers are more picky about the creatures that
inhabit this landscape.
To have cast a poor man and a poor girl, who looked remotely as though they had grown up in the slums, battered, malnutritioned, marked by what they’d been through, wouldn't have been attractive enough. So they cast an Indian model and a British boy.
The pundits say that the appeal of the film lies in the fact that while in the West for many people riches are turning to rags, the rags to riches story is giving people something to hold on to. Scary thought. Hope, surely, should be made of tougher stuff. Poor Oscars. Still, I guess it could have been worse.
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Kolkata, West Bengal, India