Slumdog Millionaire: Raising awareness or poverty porn?

Directed by the fantastic Danny Boyle and nominated for 10 oscars; the film has won awards for music, directing and acting. Set in the sensual feast that is Mumbai AND branded as a feel good movie, many – such as myself – were persuaded to go and see the film surrounded by so much good press .

A few hours later I was wincing in my seat. The film begins with a scene of horrible violence: a young man hanging from the ceiling of a police station, being tortured to unconsciousness, a trickle of blood running from his mouth. It moves into scenes of utter misery, in which small starving children are beaten and mutilated. Mothers die in front of their children, young girls are turned into prostitutes, young boys into beggars. I hope I wont ruin the ‘feel-good’ surprise when I reveal that one particularly sadistic scene shows a young boy having his eyes burnt with acid to maximise the profits of street begging.

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The film is brilliant, horrifying, compelling and awful, the relentless violence lightened only by an occasional clip of Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) working his way through the questions on Who wants to be a millionaire?. Slumdog Millionaire is about children, and is set not in the west but in the slums of the Third World. As the film revels in violence degradation and horror, it invites you, the Westener, to enjoy it too, will they find it such fun in mumbai?

While the film is resolute in its portrayal of urban poverty, Boyle is also careful to acknowledge the vibrance and energy of the ghetto, which led many to accuse him of producing poverty porn. The vitality and excitement of the slums especially shown in the Taj Mahal scene – used as a feel good comedy insert to the film – is one of the few scenes that brings light merriment to what would otherwise have been an extremely disheartening movie – although I still wouldn’t go as far as saying its feel good -. The subjective treatment of the camera casts the audience as a character and makes us feel part of the action, and along with the empathy created previously for Jamal and the other children of the slums, encourages you to connect with the children and their situation. This empathy in itself encourages the voyeurism.

Boyle shows life in slums through dirty and crowded images from the very start of the film using low camera shots placed at the wheel of the motorbike as the boys run away from the airport security guards. Rushing with the running boys, the camera shoots a range of images with people washing clothes in dirty water, the crowded streets of India trash and beggars, and a zoom-out bird-eye view of rusty tin houses – suggesting the poor and uneducated lower class is the dominant feature of India.

Slum Tours

How financially responsible are movies to the people they portray? Although paid tours of slums have existed for hundreds of years, there is a growing belief that this form of observation is a variety of voyeurism damaging to citizens of the ghetto. At their best, slum tours increase awareness of the problems faced by poorer areas; at their worst, the tours function like zoos, insulting the inhabitants, compelling them to feel exploited. Reality tours and travel is a company that organizes many guided tours around Mumbai slums and have faced much criticism of their work. Their co-founder Chris Way however, claims that any of this criticism ‘comes from misunderstanding of what we are trying to do.. break down the negative image of slums and highlight the industry and sense of community’

This raises the argument as to whether poverty tourism may in fact be used in a positive way to raise awareness and encourage the west to help. Slumdog Millionaire has already started to be used as a form of propoganda, promoting the need for western help and money. The charity Plan featured an image of the younger Jamal (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) on the front of one of their pamphlets. Ayush Mahesh Khedekar was in fact a child of the Mumbai slums and the film has been an opportunity for him to better his life showing the possibility of transformation with sponsorship from ordinary people.

There was however much dispute regarding the wages the younger actors received. The parents of the child actors’ have accused the hit film’s producers of exploiting and underpaying the eight year olds, disclosing that they face uncertain futures in one of Mumbai’s most run-down slums. Boyle has spoken of how he set up trust funds for the children and paid for their education, but it has emerged that the children who played Latika (Rubina Ali) and Salim (Azharuddin Ismail) in the early scenes of the film, were paid less than many Indian domestic servants, raising the issue of exploitation of those in poverty during the filming of in addition to as a result of the movie.

However, as I sit writhing in my seat at the horrific images burnt in my head I find it hard to believe that many would have been encouraged to view the revulsion seen first hand by visiting the slums and witnessing the conditions in which many of these people live. Would they not be equally put off? The scene in which the child’s eyes are burnt would have affected many of the viewing audience, as the truth of the situation is that no matter how much more successful a blind beggar is than a beggar with sight, the money earned will still be no-where near enough for these children to build a life of success to move themselves out of the slums. Although the scene was done in an extremely tasteful way: filmed in close ups focussing on the emotions of Salim’s (Azharuddin Ismail) face and the emotionless faces of the adults without any direct shots of gore, I found myself watching through my fingers. You might want to look away, but you can’t.

Money and Corruption

Money is a running theme throughout the movie and the corruption that surrounds it is a main focus. The corruption doesn’t just stop at money, but a corruption of people in general and this corrupt view of India shown by the movie made it unpopular with many whose country it was portraying. Its a film obsessed, at least in the first half, with capturing the ‘real India’. A third of the way into the movie, there’s a scene where Jamal takes an American couple on a sightseeing tour of Mumbai poverty. When they return to the couples rented car, they find that it has been stripped bare – wheels headlights and all.

The Indian chauffeur reacts by kicking Jamal in the face “You wanted to see the real India. Here it is,” Jamal tells the Americans. “Well, here’s the real America.” the woman replies, pulling out a hundred-dollar bill for Jamal. As Western audiences gush over the movie and allow themselves to feel like the angelic saviors of a less economically developed country, many Indians are groaning over what they see as yet another stereotypical foreign depiction of their nation, accentuating squalor and corruption.

Scenes of Jamal’s life reveal abuse, prostitution, drugs and violence… all the circumstances that typically characterize a life in poverty. Though it was a necessary part of the story and none of it was unwarranted, at times it was difficult to watch. When we are suckered into enjoying scenes of absolute horror among children in slums on the other side of the world, we ought to question where our moral compass is pointing. Slumdog Millionaire may have been the first time many of the audience had viewed scenes of such poverty and many would have wondered whether they were seeing reality or whether it was ‘hollywood-ized’.

This would certainly have encouraged some to visit the real life conditions to see whether or not the film had exaggerated the oppression of poverty or whether it was in fact a realistic portrayal of life in the slums. On the one hand poverty tourists are engaging in the overt exploitation of other people suffering to gawk at their lifestyle and living conditions, on the other hand, they are receiving a close-up, powerful and possibly life changing view of poverty that few get the chance to experience. In the case of poverty tourism, does the end justify the means? In other words, is it worth exploiting the poor in their helpless, and often hopeless situation if it ultimately changes someone’s heart towards the poor?

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