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Saturday, December 04, 2021

Finally,images of ‘slums’

Poverty has left the visual vocabulary of the new India

Written by Gautam Bhan |
February 26, 2009 11:22:12 pm

We’ve seen Bollywood dancers on an Oscar stage; two of the three nominees for Best Song being sung in a language nearly the entire audience couldn’t even identify let alone speak; those in the bevy of “India’s children” who spoke English translating questions into Marathi for the “kid from an actual slum” in a we’re-all-one-across-the-ocean-moment; and,of course,the most harmonious moment of India-is-England-is-India convergence since the founding of the East India Company. It’s an embarrassment of riches. But little about the slums so prominent in the title of the movie so celebrated.

Let me be clear: this is not a tirade against the movie in any way. It actually isn’t about the movie at all. It is about the one thing that it restored to our attention but that,somehow,isn’t being talked about: “slums”. Slumdog and the debates,protests,and celebrations around it,in equal measure,seem to beg a question: How do we,as Indians who are not Danny Boyle,think about the slum? How should we? Can Slumdog teach us a trick or two about our own backyards?

What Slumdog made me realise,more than anything else,is how much poverty has left the visual vocabulary of the new India. How distant it is. How unimaginable. How far one apparently has to go to see it or think about it. Put another way,how far so many of us had wittingly and unwittingly gone to not see it and not think about it until we paid a lot of money to see it lit-up on screen. How this movie was,for so many that live a ten-minute walk from their choice of slum,the first images of life inside a slum that they had seen. How for so many in South Delhi this movie was as foreign as for New Yorkers,and just as exotic,as surprising for its colour and happiness in the midst of obvious deprivation.

I don’t mean to say that every non-poor urban Indian should go traipsing through a slum. (Of course,I do actually think they should and that it would do them a lot of good but I’m a long-time pragmatist in such things,so I don’t ask for things I can’t get.) I do,however,want to use the absurd novelty of these images of slum life for many middle-class Indians to say the implication out loud: these images are nowhere else. They are not on our three hundred 24-hour news channels,our newspapers,our magazines,and,yes,our more-films-than-anywhere-else-per-year massive Bollywood industry. Our own cities are invisible to us.

There are scarce few images on record showing how thirty thousand households that made up the string of bastis on Yamuna Pushta in Delhi,where our new favourite Indian children might have lived,no longer exist. There are no movies about Operation Sunshine in “bhadralok” Kolkata,where street vendors were summarily shut down,no pictures from the sweeping evictions and demolitions of bastis in Mumbai. All of these evictions took place in the last four years. Since the millennium,the new India has evicted more of the urban poor of our cities than during the Emergency. Do we see anything of what happens to the homes of actual Jamals,Latikas and Salims? Do we see images?

Yes,the slum can be entertainment. It can be a source of individual people and their lives and not only about their structural exclusion. I worked for a long time in Bawana,on the edge of Delhi’s northwestern outer limits,placed there after its residents were evicted from their homes in Yamuna Pushta,where they had lived sometimes for two decades or more. The Jamals,Salims and Latikas I know as friends would love this film. They would see themselves and their lives on screen. For that alone,this movie does enough for me. For breaking the luxury porn that most of our usual Bollywood movies are,it gets my vote for whatever title it wants.

Yet there is a but. The but here is that when it is the only images that we have of basti life,when it is the only acknowledgment by so many of individual,actual people within this dark void that we so easily call the “slum,” then it’s not enough. It must not be enough. We must pull the slum out of Slumdog and bring it into our own visual and political vocabularies. Celebrating the movie’s success without actually looking at what it is showing us is a cruel hypocrisy. Protesting about the movie without offering other ways to access the images that it gives us is an equal hypocrisy. Slumdog,whatever we think about it,has brought us to a doorstep of everyday life in Indian cities: are we going to step in and finally look around at the places we inhabit for what they really are? Or are we going to celebrate a “national” Oscar victory for the places that we systematically first create and then ignore,destroy,and disrespect time and time again?

The writer is currently at the department of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley

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