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Shantytowns of the mind

I have not yet seen Slumdog Millionaire,Danny Boyle’s film that has picked up four Golden Globe awards...

Written by Kalpana Sharma |
January 14, 2009 1:56:03 am

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 have only watched some trailers 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 Oscar nominations and one Golden Globe although it did not win either. But the film,although fiction,brought home a reality that perhaps Brazilians don’t necessarily want publicised.

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 our response have been? 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 and film for our audiences? And if,as a byproduct,people are sensitised,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,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 romanticising poverty,taking away the edge from it,allowing 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 bootstraps and make something of her life?

In the end you realise that as a writer,a journalist or a filmmaker, 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 focussed 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.

Sharma is the author of ‘Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories

from Asian’s Largest Slum’.

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