Proyect: A Second Look at Slumdog Millionaire

This review is by Louis Proyect, moderator of the Marxmail list, and first appeared on his blog, the Unrepentant Marxist.

(Mike E's personal note for the record: I 'm a big fan of Slumdog Millionaire -- its ingenious portrayal of the unexpected knowledge among the poor, its window into a world made generally invisible, and its homage to Bollywood. I like cultural fusion and crossover. And I am suspicious of  cranky left attempts to impose a template of necessary portrayal on a work of art, without considering their sweep and context.  And I'm suspicious of the protests that portrayal of poverty is somehow colonialist, and not appreciative enough of the rise of Indian development and middle classes. Meanwhile this is a time in the U.S. when  people talk about the faceless third world  "stealing our jobs" (even people who should know better)-- and in such a chauvinist climate, isn't the impact of a film like this to illuminate the common connections and aspirations between people internationally?  Could there be other, better, more politically scathing and subversive works? Yes, of course. And while that is worth imagining and pursuing -- it is also worth appreciating what we have been given." )

by Louis Proyect

Not long after I posted my rave review of Slumdog Millionaire, an old friend from Bard College whose politics can be described as a shade to the left of the Nation Magazine, informed that he did not care for the movie at all.

Here are the final paragraphs of his review that appears on a group blog initiated b--y Richard Greener, another Bard graduate and old friend:

"What I remember most vividly are the scenes of homicidal communal violence, universal indifference to the fate of helpless children, their blinding, maiming and daily exploitation (all presented as normal features of life in the big city) the routine use of torture on the merest suspicion by everyday police (this little station keep electrical equipment on hand for the purpose) and a general, straightforward, unabashed level of social snobbery so smarmy as to register in the pit of the stomach.

"This is, however, no expose. The extensive scenes noted serve only as background for a facile and ultimately silly romance devolving on the conceit described. The action is camera driven. The tension relies on manufactured delay and forced uncertainty. The characters aspire neither to depth, texture, nor personality. The girl is typically beautiful notwithstanding the dreadful scar inflicted by her vedddy vedddy bad tormentors.

"Most strikingly, the creative sensibility betrays no larger or principled interest in its depiction of abominations. The fiendish use of small children is mere local color.

"Those with strong stomachs and a taste for formulaic melodrama in distant lands may buy it. Many have and no doubt will. I found it the creepiest motion picture I have seen in a long, long time. Creepier still is the popular practice of describing - and, I must conclude, experiencing - Slumdog Millionaire as a “feelgood” movie."

 

Since I have lots of respect for my friend’s opinion (he shamed me into disavowing my conservative political beliefs in 1961), I found myself thinking more and more about whether my take on the movie was correct. Although I obviously can’t retract the pleasure I took in the movie as entertainment, was my take on the movie’s politics still valid? This is what I said in my review:

"As should be obvious from the plot, “Slumdog Millionaire” is a very old-fashioned rags-to-riches love story. Indeed, as should be clear from the screenplay’s similarities to “Oliver Twist”, there is something positively Dickensian about Jamal’s story. In the same way that class distinctions in Victorian England forced a sensitive novelist to take up the plight of the poor, so were the makers of Slumdog Millionaire inspired to expose the brutality of life in the slums of Mumbai, a point of view that can not be found in Thomas Friedman’s gushing over the benefits of globalization in India. Indeed, what distinguishes Slumdog Millionaire from conventional Bollywood efforts is its determination to call attention to the realities of slum conditions in India. In doing so, they have much more in common with some of the more critical-minded Indian movies like Deepa Mehta’s “Water,” a film also about children being forced to become beggars, and Shonali Bose’s Amu, which takes up the question of the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984. Like the main character in Amu, the three children in Slumdog Millionaire also lost their parents as a result of anti-Moslem violence."

 

As I read my words now for the first time since I wrote them, I feel relatively sure that I got this movie right especially in my description of it as “Dickensian”. Although I have many problems with George Orwell, especially the Stalinophobia of his latter years, I find his essay on Dickens most instructive, particularly in its ability to see the value of his novels despite their Victorian prejudices. This, in particular, seems to hit the mark:

"The truth is that Dickens’s criticism of society is almost exclusively moral. Hence the utter lack of any constructive suggestion anywhere in his work. He attacks the law, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places. Of course it is not necessarily the business of a novelist, or a satirist, to make constructive suggestions, but the point is that Dickens’s attitude is at bottom not even destructive. There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as ‘human nature’. It would be difficult to point anywhere in his books to a passage suggesting that the economic system is wrong as a system. Nowhere, for instance, does he make any attack on private enterprise or private property. Even in a book like Our Mutual Friend, which turns on the power of corpses to interfere with living people by means of idiotic wills, it does not occur to him to suggest that individuals ought not to have this irresponsible power."

 

This would certainly apply to Slumdog Millionaire as well. By comparison, Amu is far more politically incisive-a function no doubt of the radical politics of the husband and wife who produced and directed this terrific movie.  The anti-Sikh violence in Amu is depicted as based in reactionary institutions that would seek scapegoats in non-Hindu peoples, while the anti-Muslim violence in Slumdog is unexplained-we witness it almost as a natural phenomenon, like a cyclone. Furthermore, the deliverance of Slumdog’s hero from poverty is seen in strictly Dickensian terms, as a function of coincidence and the generosity of decent people. Of course, as a formula for transforming the slums of India, this is virtually useless.

In the Guardian Newspaper’s Comment is Free blog, City University professor Hirsh Sawhney takes exception to the movie’s imposition of “Western values” on India:

"After watching the film, viewers are left to infer that slums are horrid, rancid places because of beggar masters, Hindu zealots and Muslim gangs. Of course these forces play their role in perpetuating misery. But in reality, slums are an international problem caused by an intricate set of entities: corrupt government officials, gargantuan multinational corporations and suspect IMF structural adjustment programs.

"Playing it safe, Boyle doesn’t implicate any of these entities. As a result, his movie does allow us to believe that we have been responsible global citizens by engaging with the intensity of third world slums. We in the audience even feel genuine sympathy for destitution. But at no point do we have to forsake the delusion that abject poverty and inequity are strictly foreign things for which we share no culpability.

In fact, far from spreading the blame for global poverty, Boyle’s film actually suggests that the west is the solution to India’s problems. Protagonist Jamal only escapes his ceaseless cycle of squalor and crime once he makes it into the orderly, democratic world of a British call centre. This call centre, in turn, delivers him to his fateful redemption on Millionaire. The subtext is clear: things are really bad in urban India but healthy servings of western values are just what the doctor - and the Academy judges - ordered."

 

While I am sympathetic to Sawhney’s obviously leftist perspective, I truly wonder how any movie can identify the cause of slums in IMF structural adjustment programs, unless you are talking about a documentary. I also doubt that the call centre in Slumdog has the redemptive qualities ascribed to it by Sawhney. Most people probably reacted to it in the same way I did, as an alienating, exploitative white-collar sweatshop.

Another leftist critique of Slumdog appeared in Counterpunch. In Slumdog Millionaire’s Dehumanizing View of India’s Poor, author Mitu Sengupta, a professor at Ryerson College in Canada, argues:

"It is no secret that Slumdog is meant to reflect life in Dharavi, the vast sprawl of slums at the heart of Mumbai. The film depicts Dharavi as a feral wasteland, with little evidence of order, community or compassion. Other than the children, the no-one is even remotely well-intentioned. Hustlers and petty warlords run amok, and even Jamal’s schoolteacher is inexplicably callous. This is a place of sheer evil and decay.

"But nothing is further from the truth. Dharavi teems with dynamism, and is a hub of small-scale industries, whose estimated annual turnover is between US$50 to $100 million. Nor is Dharavi bereft of governing structures and productive social relations. Residents have built strong collaborative networks, often across potentially volatile lines of caste and religion. Many cooperative societies work together with NGOs to provide residents with essential services such as basic healthcare, schooling and waste disposal, often compensating for the formal government’s woeful inadequacy in meeting their needs. Although these under-resourced organizations have touched only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, their efforts must be acknowledged, along with the fact that slum-dwellers, despite their grinding poverty, have lives of value and dignity, and a resourcefulness that stretches far beyond the haphazard, individualistic survival-of-the-fittest sort shown in Slumdog.

"In the end, Slumdog presents a profoundly dehumanizing view of the poor, with all its troubling political implications. Since there are no internal resources, and none capable of constructive voice or action, all “solutions” must arrive externally. After a harrowing life in an anarchic wilderness, salvation finally comes to Jamal in the form of an imported quiz-show, which he succeeds in thanks only to “destiny.” Must other unfortunates, like the stoic Jamal, patiently await their own destinies of rescue by a foreign hand? While this self-billed “feel good movie of the year” may help us “feel good” that we are among the lucky ones on earth, it delivers a patronizing, colonial and ultimately sham statement on social justice for those who are not."

 

While I find Sengupta’s observations correct, I have to repeat the same concern I had with Sawhney’s disappointment over the absence of an analysis of the role of IMF structural adjustments. What kind of film can both be an Indian version of Oliver Twist (this is really what it was when you stop and think about it) and fully describe the roles of NGO’s and coops? The answer is none.

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