Pop Culture

Nobody Likes a Tourist

The real-life fallout from Slumdog Millionaire's success reveals some terrible truths about India, Hollywood, and the American media.

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Slumdog Millionaire is a movie that thrives on its gorgeous improbability, not to mention the all-singing-all-dancing talents of the most appealingly clean-cut poor people you’ve seen since your high school’s production of Oliver! But let’s not forget that it jauntily depicts some truly harrowing things—the rape and assault of our heroine, gang violence, the murder of our hero’s mother because of her Islamic faith, and the crushing poverty of nearly everyone on screen. Thank goodness for that game show, the host’s recognition of Jamal’s innate virtue and that final stroke of luck that allows him to fulfill his destiny. The problem with Slumdog Millionaire is that it ends, that you can come out of the theater thinking something has been fixed, that such luck is possible for everybody. I enjoyed the film, but this is where I get off the bandwagon. Optimism is one thing, but a contrivance of plot that removes itself so far from reality so as to overly simplify it is quite another.

The reality comes on like a champagne hangover: last summer, the World Bank estimated that approximately 42 percent of India’s population lives under the poverty line, and UNICEF now reports that 12.6 million Indian children under the age of 14 engage in hazardous occupations. Think less picturesque than Jamal and Salim giving illegal tours of the Taj Mahal, more like sweat shops and blinded singing beggars. Well over half of Mumbai’s 14 million people live in slums, including a number of the actors in the film.

But these and other sobering statistics were quoted when the movie was in theaters and the Oscars horse race. The latest Slumdog phenomenon is a media one, the “plight of the child actor” story. As the Oscars closed in, media outlets around the world reported that two of the child actors in the film were paid less than an average maid in Mumbai. Fox Searchlight’s risible defense that the kids were paid “three times the average local adult salary” is offset by the fact that “local” means the second largest slum in Asia. Then, there were garish reports of nine-year-old Rubina Ali’s father attempting to sell her for quite a bit more than the average local salary. In the last week, there have been two separate wire reports of the actors’ family homes (read: shanties) being demolished by city authorities, first nine-year-old Azharuddin Ismail and, this morning, Rubina Ali’s family was displaced. Fox Searchlight claims to have established a trust for these real-life slumdogs to get a proper education and housing—a stroke of luck nearly as improbable as winning Who Wants to be a Millionaire—but it is apparent that this is too little, too late. It seems that, in spite of their brush with stardom, these poor kids can’t catch a break.

It goes without saying that these stories are very sad, but the media is engaging in its own version of “too little, too late.” Obviously, the child actors’ family homes weren’t the only shanties demolished—Mumbai’s city government surely has better public relations sense than to single them out—but this fact earns all of one sentence in the Reuters and AP reports. Other, nameless, presumably less photogenic people have been displaced, and they do not even have recourse to a movie studio trust fund. I can see the wire services’ probable reasoning behind such a story. For one, it has a face that people can flatter themselves they will recognize, an adorable face to boot. Also, the story of the horror of the rags-to-riches kids in Mumbai is a clean “way in” to a wider story about poverty in the city’s slums. The problem with this logic is exactly that it is too clean, that there were minimal riches involved in this rags story to begin with, and that there is little follow-through coverage of the wider issue. This kind of story allows me—sitting at my laptop that cost a couple thousand dollars, in my one-person apartment that cost a couple more—to have my “shucks, what a shame” moment over coffee as I read Huffington Post and then move on to the latest in—how cute!—Dev Patel and Freida Pinto’s blossoming real-life romance.

Do these stories deserve to have been written? Sure. But that it took this for the media to start reporting on the abysmal poverty in India’s biggest city is irresponsible, not to mention cynical. The editors assume it will take the face of a kid who spent a few minutes onscreen in this year’s Best Picture to get readers interested in her plight and that of millions like her. That the media stoops to this kind of manipulation, or feels it needs to, is an indictment of our sedentary public values. Shouldn’t the fact of appalling poverty in India be almost as compelling as the improbable fiction it inspired? The twist of fate at the end of Slumdog Millionaire seems, in light of these stories and the realities they barely hint at, scarcely less cynical. In “Common People,” Jarvis Cocker sneers, “nobody likes a tourist,” and Danny Boyle—both from northern England, incidentally, a part of Britain with a considerable history of poverty—begins to seem like a guide for amoral tourism on a massive scale.

It is not art’s purpose to always be true to reality; that would be painfully boring. But one might ask the artist, in the face of realities like these, to take them a bit more seriously. None of Charles Dickens’ novels about Victorian poverty were ever as breezily nonchalant about the horrors they depicted as Slumdog Millionaire is, and readers can hear Dickens imploring them to do something about it. I would implore you, if you enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire or even if you didn’t, to make a donation to UNICEF, Oxfam, or another aid organization so that real slumdogs the world round, those that have been in the movies and those that have not, don’t need to rely on luck alone.

DISCUSSION
  • Go to comment.
    May 20, 2009, 02:41PM
    So what do you think would be a better model for the media, considering that you don't want the media to become totally focused on providing causes for people to donate to?
    Responses to this comment
  • Go to comment.
    May 21, 2009, 03:18AM
    The problem is really more that stories like the ones I talk about don't look at the wider issue of poverty, focusing on the personal drama in these individual cases, who happen to have been in a big movie. Having worked in media I appreciate the need for a compelling "news peg," but that these stories treat what has happened to these families as something out of the ordinary is bogus. I would like a mainstream media that is more responsible in terms of in-depth reporting of humanitarian crises like the situation in the slums in Mumbai, that's really the only new model I'm interested in.
  • Go to comment.
    May 21, 2009, 10:08AM
    I agree that more than transient, or headline-grabbing, attention to, using your example, poverty in all reaches of the world would be ideal. But isn't that a conversation that's more suited for a generation ago? Who's going to do that kind of reporting now, and on what budget?
  • Go to comment.
    May 22, 2009, 10:04AM
    It's a movie. I repeat. It's a movie. It's a great movie,but you invest too much in it. People Have used Slumdog Millionaire for everything and anything under the sun,poverty,Bollywood,the embarrassment of India,the evil director who purposely went there to rip off the poor little kids-hell-it's the **(( Bible. Let clarify-the movie was not expected to do well,so to those of you who say the kids should have gotten a million in salary,dream on. If they had,they'd have been victims of their own neighbors and families. That should be obvious by now. The movie was expected to go straight to video. Therefore,money was paid on the basis of expected profits. As for the demolishing of Rubina and Ismail's shacks. If you keep up-and I do,that's Mumbai's version of urban renewal. It is illegal housing. They were subjected to it some 12-15 times a year. The shacks are re-built in 2-3 days. I can say this with some confidence since Rubina's mother said it. I read the Indian papers. I've also lived in Pune,which is a smaller town near Mumbai. The natural order of things is the fancy new building and in front of that,the shacks which their corrugated tin roofs. In front of these are the tents,quickly followed by the people who have no tents. The cute little strreet urchins you feel so sorry for? They are positively middle class. Stop judging by white America's standards. Did you think Boyle was going to adopt them? It's a love story. The Indians in India hated it because it exposed the their dirty petty petticoats to the rest of the world. They know they're there. They drive through worse every day.That's why they love 3 hour movies with pounds of gold and miles of the richest silks in the world.It's not what they have,but what they could have. Don't blame the movie. Did it move you to action? Good. If not,then shut up.It brought in renewed interest in India and therefore revenue. It introduced the West to AR Rahman. It's about time.He didn't need the publicity but the West needed the music. And please-watch the weight of your own words: "Searchlight claims" = they lied-Right? "these poor kids can't catch a break."- Actually,Rubina has had a runway modeling job and teamed with Nicole Kidman for a Schweppes ad. I'll bet you a Kanjeevarum,she got paid more than a pittance and it was put in the trust fund. Your idea that help comes too little too late is not compatible with India. Indians firmly and fully believe in fate.G-d's will. They do not feel less. They accept with better grace. Americicans say,"damn,that's terrible." And they give up. Indians rebuild their shacks,knowing,they will be bulldozed again. But that is life. Americans will write. And forget. Next year the poor Chinese,right? Or Argentina? Mexico? We've done Africa to death-really.(pun) You leave the theatre with your superior ideas. I wondered how Jamal would deal with his brother's death,and not that everything had been fixed.I thought of the old woman who stopped him on the way to the game show and wished him well. People do that in India. They share joys and sorrows even as strangers become family. We are poorer people in the West. India is the best and the worst. Poverty does that. The British did that. And one last thought. Jamal's mother wasn't killed for her Islamic faith. She was a muslim no doubt. But if she had been a Hindu visiting a muslim in the neighborhood,she would have been killed just as dead. In the heat of the moment,even Indians don't check I.D. Wrong place wrong time. Patel,after all,is a Hindu playing a Muslim.The mother was played by a Bengali Hindu. 9/11 killed a lot of very nice Muslims. Hate doesn't seem to care who it kills. ( And yes,I have supported a child in India for 15 years through Children International.)
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