Monday, 26 January 2009

The Slumdog Guide to Republic Day

“We are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality.” Fifty-nine years after B.R. Ambedkar (chairman of the Drafting Committee) spoke these words to introduce the Indian Constitution to the Constituent Assembly, India is celebrating its Republic Day amidst debates about whether Slumdog Millionaire depicts the 'real' India or not.

Ambedkar knew well that political equality in a democracy was not a sufficient condition for human development more broadly. He was right. As democracy has flourished, so has the political participation and political power of once marginalised groups. Yet, inequality continues to hamper not just the development prospects of the country as a whole but of individual citizens.

The problem is that we don't always think of inequality in the same terms. For many, any talk of inequality raises the spectre of communist redistribution. They ask, 'If everyone's incomes are growing, then why worry?' They note that relative to the 1980s, when India first started enjoying a consumption-driven economic boom, incomes have grown faster in the last decade. Despite the current downturn, the past five years have recorded the fastest growth in national income than any other five-year period in post-1947 India. Such achievements must be celebrated and economic reforms must be credited, strengthened and deepened. Redistribution in a slow-growing economy cannot be a panacea.

But inequality has many other faces, and we need to remember only young Jamal's in Slumdog to know what I mean. Let's take his survival. For director Danny Boyle, the greatest threat to young Jamal's life came from religious rioters and eye-gouging slum lords. For real-world Jamals, disease and malnutrition are often bigger threats. The rate at which child mortality fell in India was lower in the 1990s compared to the 1980s, exactly the period when income growth was surging. A rising tide might lift many boats out of poverty, but it is no guarantee that a boat's passengers would get to shore alive. Again, Jamal's childhood sweetheart, Latika, might have been shockingly left behind when the kid brothers escape ('Theek rahegi woh'), but she would have even fewer chances in the real world: girls are 50% more likely to die than boys thanks to inequalities in access to nutrition and healthcare. Further, when the reel-world Jamal jumps into a pit of excrement to secure an autograph, we cringe. But at least he had access to a pit-latrine. Many real-world Jamals don't: in real-world Dharavi there is 1 toilet for every 1440 residents.

But Slumdog's narrative also offers a glimpse of what addressing real inequalities can achieve. This is not a film about making money - in fact, Jamal doesn't become rich until he wins the gameshow. This is a film about opportunities and how Jamal makes the most of each chance he gets. The millions of Indians who have become part of the burgeoning middle class are proud of what their merit has achieved. But they also made good on the 'basic' opportunities of an immunisation, a functioning primary school, clean water, and a flush toilet. The question is whether Jamal's real-world cousins can also have the opportunities that many of us take for granted. Their lot has much to do with structural inequalities, discriminations and prejudices.

Recently, P. Chidambaram, India's home minister and former finance minister, celebrated Slumdog for showcasing the enterprise and innovation in slums like Dharavi. True. But that cannot be an excuse for ignoring other more basic opportunities like a school, a toilet, a vaccine, and a glass of water. After nearly six decades of the Republic of India, let's celebrate all that we've achieved, despite the odds. Let's also celebrate Slumdog not just for the grit of its protagonist, but for what real-world Jamals with real opportunities could really achieve. They too constitute the 'We' in 'We, the People', the first three words of our Constitution.


Aadya Shukla said...

I agree with various issues (i.e., poverty, crime, division along the religious lines) highlighted in the movie but there are certain truths about this movie, we can not ignore. The movie fails to present a balanced account of the life of a slum-dweller in India. *The poor people in India actually take 'unhealthy amount of pride' in managing within their limited means. Dignity is not a monopoly of the well-off sections of the society.* The movie portrays the slum-children as petty criminals and undignified thugs, who thrive on exploiting foreign tourists (I hope that P. Chidambaram was hinting at a different kind of enterprise). It is interesting to note that the movie is equally unjustified towards your average Western tourist in India, who is depicted as complete dumb fellow, who are willing to be taken for a ride. Those who want to understand the real life inside a Mumbai Slum should refer to an excellent movie called "Nata", which is a moving personalised tale of communal harmony in Mumbai's biggest slum, Dharavi. (Dir: K.P. Jayasankar and Anjali Monteiro). As Asia's largest slum, with a population of 800,000, Dharavi has often been represented as a breeding ground for filth, vice and poverty, full of immigrants, whose right to live in the city is often questioned by vigilante citizens' groups and right-wing politicians. However, Dharavi's long history of immigration has created a creative, and productive crucible for producing the best and the worst in human nature. It is quite shocking that the director of the SlumDog has chosen to highlight only cliches in order to appeal to a selective audience. The movie would have been more refreshing and novel, if the director cared to highlight both the sides of India. Unfortunately, distorting the reality has become a passport for award nominations (in the name of the creative freedom). *The movie also does not deserve the title "Feel good Movie" of the year by any stretch of imagination. Ironically, millions of viewers around the world do not take pleasure in the plight of unfortunate children, despite the recent job-cuts and looming recession.

CARPE DIEM !! said...

Opinions on poverty and in lieu Slumdog are a dime a dozen this week , so shall not add to the kitsch. However though i do believe the point you put forward is credible - one thing about Slumdog which troubled me (I liked almost everything else)- HOW DID JAMAL WIN THE GAME SHOW - ANS: IT WAS WRITTEN .... Despite the pro-slum rhetoric and claims of hope - don't you think it is ironic that Jamal wins only because 'It is written' , therefore inviting the view that all those who did and do lose , also lose because it is written....... Funny to see typically Indian Stoicism from a western mouthpiece.....

Sanjiv said...

I cant help but agree with you on the various problems like poverty, crime and the so-called divide that exists in soceity. But from a cine perspective, the movie highlights the so-called dark side of the slums of Dharavi, leave alone India. Dharavi is in context has come up, as it is the largest slum in the so-called sensitive financial capital of India. From my interaction with slum-dwellers and I must say very very limited, there is a sense of belonging among all of them, which seems to be absent from our so-called non-slum(read civilized) society. It this trait that the movie fails to present. Another aspect which the movie does not seem to care about, as rightly pointed out by Aadya earlier is their pride in managing their livelihood within their means, ensuring a very healthy diet, which suits their laborious work life and we claiming health and safety as a pillar to our lives need the gym to burn our calories.

Another aspect, which might be relevant in todays scenario, which the Danny Boyle might not think is relevant, is the one stark difference between us educated ones and slum-dwellers:: Like we cannot see our eye-brows, the same way we fail to look within us for certain solutions. All of us have had good education, decent jobs with atleast some getting atrocious salaries. We have decent mortgaged houses to live in, eat healthy food, take vacations and the list is endless.......but on the happiness quotient and being at peace with oneself, the slum-dwellers beat us hands down.

May be there should be a sequel called Slumhappy, yet not a millionaire

srinidhi said...

Hi Arunabha
Welcome back to blogging! In fact, I had made a comment in the morning and was not able to publish. Aadya's comment reinforces much better what I had written. I was chided by a social worker for making a negative comment about Dharavi years ago when it came into existence. She had said 'they provide cheap labour, most of them are honest and crime level is about the same as anywhere else or probably less'. I believe they were forced out of villages due to scarcity of food in their villages due to drought. Speaks volumes of our support system or compassion prevalent in our villages.

I still have no complaints about a slick happy ending movie about a slumdog making it good, however improbable. I wish to celebrate along with you .. 'what real-world Jamals with real opportunities could really achieve'.

But it is a long haul and I recall reading years ago that many thousands of pavement dwellers are born and end their lives on the pavement. It is not easy to think that these millions will ever get out of the black hole!

Frankly our stray dog at Rishi court had a much better time than the slumdogs!

Praful said...

Very interesting. We often come across such thoughts, seldom as well articulated. But every time I am left thinking whether the government has gotten its priorities wrong. If we take siphoning of a portion of public funds as a cost of democratic governance, I am always left wondering how can such basic amenities to the public be funded, esp when deficit is uncontrolled. As political administrator, the planning commission faces, to my mind, legitimate requests for each of its expense items.

Everytime I think that development is the only way out. Economic growth means higher government revenue and less "economics of scarcity", often touted as a primary reason for corruption. The only way I would tweak my faith in fast growth is to supplement the current top centric growth model by a bottom driven model that leverages grassroot productivity. I argue that currently productivity at grassroots, which I define as rural, dharavi urban, is well below its potential. I also argue that poor people save less, so if given a choice I would rather create wealth at bottom and get a higher multiplier to GDP than to create it at the top. Finally, this would adress the questions of inequality, basic living standards and social inharmony eg naxalism.

Prakash Kamath said...

I do agree that the movie does tend to show the slum people in terms of 'cliches' and does not show the different facets of their lives.
However, the presentation of the movie demands this. For every 'question' given to Jamal the movie goes to show us from where and how he came to know the answer. The protagonist had no formal education and was not 'literate' and yet he is able to give the correct answer from what 'life' has taught him.
During his police interrogation under torture he says only that he knew the answers and when asked to elucidate the story unfolds.
The director in relating the story is limited to showing only the parts relevant to the question and its answer.
That said the 'feel good' aspect of Jamal's winning not only the top prize, but, also Latika is what makes the movie enjoyable. Showing only the seamier side of Dharavi serves to 'shock' audiences into wanting the underdog to succeed.
Showing India from the point of view of the underdog seems to be the 'in' thing in the West right now as Aravind Adiga also bagged the Booker Prize with his first novel The White Tiger written in more or less the same vein.


muser said...

arunabha, much has already been said and dissected about slumdog. so, i would only register my protest to it winning oscars than to the movie itself. in my opinion it could have been based in any country, from mexico to russia, but right now India is the hot target!