I’ve never been in a country more obsessed about how it is represented abroad than India. There is a TV show I saw there devoted to how the international media was talking about the country. Many of the Indians I’ve met are so incredibly embarrassed by any failure to live up to what they imagine my Western sensibilities to be that they are constantly apologizing for things I haven’t complained about. Not all Indians of course. This collective symbolic violence seems to be felt most particularly by the new upwardly mobile urban middle classes. The members of the elite I’ve met seem protected by their own erudite pride in India’s intellectual, historical, scientific, and artistic traditions. They see nothing to apologize for. And the poor whom I’ve had the privilege to meet are equally proud. They are proud of their clean homes (or in some cases roadside shelters), their few possessions and their children – all of which they’ve struggled for.
So I’m not surprised to read about the uproar surrounding Slumdog Millionaire. I happened to like this film, for many of the same reasons David Bordwell does; namely, its creative re-imagining of tried-and-true movie clichés. He also provides an interesting historical view:
Indian criticisms of the image of poverty in Slumdog remind me of reactions to Italian Neorealism from authorities concerned about Italy’s image abroad. The government undersecretary Giulio Andreotti claimed that films by Rossellini, De Sica, and others were “washing Italy’s dirty linen in public.” Andreotti wrote that De Sica’s Umberto D had rendered “wretched service to his fatherland, which is also the fatherland of . . . progressive social legislation.”
I would be much more sympathetic to such complaints if the Indian middle class was more concerned about the actual poverty surrounding them than the appearance of that poverty to Western eyes.
The one criticism I am more sympathetic to is one that is endemic to the Hollywood clichés upon which the film relies: that it represents poverty in a way which denies the poor their own agency. This is a criticism which has been made not just in lefty journals like CounterPunch, but also in the pages of the New York Times. Although, as my wife pointed out, the film gets the kids out of the slum pretty quickly, with anti-Muslim riots as a pretext. Based on her reading of Atreyee Sen’s ethnography Shiv Sena Women: Violence and Communalism in a Bombay Slum, it’s not just a convienent plot device, it’s documentary. (She’s writing a blog post on the book which I’ll link to when its up.)
This hyper-sensitivity to representations is also something we ourselves have struggled with as documentary filmmakers. The community documented in our film is more aptly described as a “ghetto” than a “slum.” It is the stigma of criminality rather than abject poverty which sets it apart. There are some members of the community who are quite wealthy and many more who totter on the edge between legitimate careers as lawyers (one of the few careers open to them, since lawyers in India are often self-employed) and the need to bootleg liquor to make ends meet. We are in a bit of a Catch-22 situation since even talking about the stigma of criminality runs the risk of further reinforcing that stigma. Understandably, many members of the community are very concerned about how we handle this. We have taken this concern very seriously, showing rushes and rough cuts to the film’s subjects every time we return. We have had meetings to discuss the problem itself and will likely be including some of those discussions in the film itself. But ultimately, our solution is to try to do exactly what the above mentioned criticisms say Slumdog fails to do: to highlight the community’s own strength and agency. Our emphasis in the film is on what the community has done – not just for themselves, but also for other less fortunate communities as well.
In making this choice we realized that we will probably loose some of our audience. American film industry conventions say that a film should have a white character who acts as a mediator between the audience and “the other” if you want to reach a wide audience. But we feel strongly that doing the film in this way would undermine the voices of the Chhara themselves. And here is where Slumdog gives us hope. Who would have thought that the leading contender for this year’s Academy Awards would be a film devoid of a white male lead?