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Slumlord Aesthetics and the Question of Indian Poverty

Nandini Chandra teaches English at Hansraj College, Delhi University. Currently she is a visiting assistant professor at the Asian Languages and Literature Department, University of Minnesota.

Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (based on Indian diplomat Vikas Swaroop’s novel Q & A) takes the extremely potent idea of a Bombay slum boy tapping into his street knowledge to win a twenty-million-dollar reality quiz show, and turns it into a universal tale of love and human destiny. In the quiz, Jamal is unable to answer questions that test his nationalist knowledge but is surprisingly comfortable with those that mark his familiarity with international trivia. For instance, while he knows that Benjamin Franklin adorns the hundred dollar bill, he has no clue about who adorns the thousand rupee note. This is obviously meant to suggest the irrelevance of the nation to its most marginalized member, but less obviously, also indicates its redundancy under globalized neoliberalism.

The film has been on an award-winning roll, having won four Golden Globes, seven Baftas, and a few others besides the eight Oscars, something that surely adds to rather than subtracts from its imperial charm. According to critic David Gritten of the Telegraph, it is “the first film of the Obama era,” by which he means that it shares an Obama-type idealism, which might, but in his view ought not to be, mistaken for naiveté, presumably in light of the current global crisis of capitalism. The film was shot in the Nehru Nagar slums near Dharavi ward in Mumbai, but aspires to a Dickensian portrayal, heralded by the centrality of the neo-gothic structure of the Victoria Terminus as the transformative point in the film. The sentimental but validating look at the lives of the poor thus arouses both your typical Bollywood feel-goodness and imperial nostalgia. Boyle had promised the studio bosses a film in English in tandem with the one-world logic, surely. Loveleen Tandan, the co-director, took her role as cover-up officer for cultural gaffes seriously enough to push for the little boys from the Nehru Nagar slum to speak Hindi rather than English. The film has sparked a fierce nationalist campaign among Britishers who feel that it could have only been made by a Briton. Hollywood wouldn’t have touched a film using a Muslim lead with a barge pole.

In contrast, Indians cannot quite see it in nationalist terms. For one, Amitabh Bachchan’s blog has officially announced and sanctioned the hurt pride of nationalist Indians occasioned by the film’s exposure of its dirty underbelly. While one can have no sympathy with the chauvinist argument that non-Indians have no right to depict the seamier side of native life, the way this hyper-nationalist sentiment has been refracted in the international press says something about the film’s motivations. For instance, most reports translate Bachchan’s statement as the Indian peoples’ inability to take a brutal look at themselves, assuming both that the so-called West has a direct line to the underclass, and that Mr. Bachchan is one of “the Indian people.”

Given this intermeshing of an Indian and global context surrounding the film’s production and reception, it becomes pertinent to frame the question of the specific nature of Indian poverty raised in the film. The film is hardly unique in addressing the spectacle of the Bombay poor, their dismal conditions of living and defecating, or their great disparity vis-à-vis the Indian rich. But what it does crystallize in very concrete terms is a general consensus achieved in recent years on the disengagement of labor from questions of poverty and wealth. Partha Chatterjee’s recent and much talked about essay, “Democracy and Economic Transformation” (Economic and Political Weekly, April 19, 2008), mobilizes the concept of a “political society” to merge the realm of peasant detritus and urban poor with petty entrepreneurs as well as the more shadowy criminal class. His argument reads something like this: This informal and irregular community has not been and cannot be integrated into the corporate-style capitalist structures. While they lose out on the benefits of civil society, their only salvation lies in being appropriated by governmental structures and schemes. This translation of the poor’s lack of proletarian consciousness as an automatic admission into political-governmental terms or shrouding them in a cloak of illegality begs several questions. The most important one being the question of capital accumulation by forcible dispossession, through the judicious use of that very government’s repressive instruments in the first place. Or the question of how to usefully channel this dispossessed labor surplus in a direction that will precipitate class struggle.

While the film in its neoliberal optimism contradicts this understanding of the poor, seeing them as immediately appropriable within the interstices of corporatized service industries, it participates in the denial of the potential usefulness of the work they do and its lack of reward. However, like Chatterjee, it also insists on placing them outside the purview of the juridical civil state, where law and order seem not to prevail in the same familiar way, thus surrounding their lives with a mystique that films like Boyle’s can successfully unravel. Having been endowed with humanity and dignity, the poor cannot be seen through what is perceived as instrumental categories of labor or class anymore.

They instead become denizens of a shadowy, illicit realm which can be made comprehensible only by integrating it within certain humanist tropes like love and freedom. It is remarkable that the topography of the places where the poor live is seen largely through aerial shots—mountains of garbage, huge green forests of wasteland, rivers of feces—and the little boys jumping back and forth through this panoramic natural landscape acquire the characteristic of blooming lotuses in mud. The distant shots have the advantage of lending perspective, especially as the boys return to the city as mature English-speaking individuals who know how to take care of themselves. The goo scene in the beginning and the scene where a massive bogeyman-type figure gouges out the eyes of little children with a spoon are tightly framed to render the horror of the other world, which may be packaged for a poverty tour (like the one where Shantaram took Angelina Jolie by the hand and led her through the giddy lanes of Dharavi).

The slum, the common tank where the mother was felled by one swoop of the Hindu fundamentalist sword, the brothel, the child labor, the exploitative policemen, the curious school master in a dhoti, and the mafia bosses are all stops on this guided tour which is only superficially different from the commodification of poverty one finds on the sets of more popular Bollywood fare. In fact, the new Bollywood aesthetics find an echo here in its severe eschewal of the institutions of state and civil society. But while Bollywood is equally welcoming of foreign capital, a non-Bollywood production like Slumdog takes on more immediately imperialist overtones. This is because the impetus of its rhetoric of good will and benevolence strives to conceal the conditions of its production, encapsulated by a patchy realism which seems to suggest that its real commitment is to the true heart of India, rather than a magical realist Bollywood imaginary which it uses merely as the scaffolding for its conventional plot.

The direct connectivity with an international public via tourism, call centers, media, and other service industry networks makes the proximity to foreign capital extremely clear. The absence of an organized labor force or any political platform makes it possible to render the terms offered by this capital free of any vested interest. For instance, the film is produced by Celador Films, the very company which originally created the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” contest, an idea never once mocked throughout the film. In fact, reality television with big money in rewards encourages the contestants to alternatively think of themselves as obligated to the jury and managers on the one hand, and entitled to earn or deserve the disproportionately large sums of money on the other.

At the same time, the ruthlessness with which the contestants are evicted draws brief attention to the bosses’ less than benign status as business entrepreneurs, only to deflect it to a professional ethic, which seeks to dignify its lottery or gambling mode. Needless to say, there has been an unprecedented rise in singing, acting, and dancing schools since the growth of reality talent contests on Indian television, in turn inspired by the big money in the corporate-sponsored showbiz industry, which makes the aspirations of the contestants less illegitimate perhaps. The particular dynamics of reality television get enacted when little Jamal is being propped up to be a singer by the beggar kingpin Mamman, and the little fellow really thinks his time has come. In true reality television fashion, he demands a fifty rupee note from him before he sings his piece, announcing that he is after all a professional. Ironically, it is the time spent in this mini-ritual of television inspired professionalism that saves his eyes.

The extension of the professional ethic to these service sectors makes even the informal contractual labor conditions of chaiwallahs, tea vendors, seem like a welcome novelty. The hotel kitchen seems like a refuge of freedom for the canny child waiter, who gets plenty of time off even as Salim complains of the utopian life they left behind thieving tires in the by-lanes of Agra. The tourist industry seems like a utopia of cast-offs and gullible “whities” waiting to be ripped off by these wily self-appointed guides. In short, the film tries to show that for those who can think on their feet, access to wealth is not a problem. Child labor is not really seen as exploitative, but as enabling the education of these young adults.

In fact, hardly do we perceive their contribution in terms of real labor. They are seen as gaining from rather than giving to the system, sabotaging, picking up the leftovers, staying in empty hotel rooms, stealing from it. Their labor is forever in the background. What is in the foreground is the readymade wealth they are continually grabbing. Wealth is seen not as something created by labor but as already always there to be accessed—like the twenty  million to be won for the answering of ten odd questions, a clear repudiation of the true dynamics of labor and class. Moreover, by making the state and civil society evaporate, the film is interested in showing that real harmony is ultimately produced by a direct interaction between capital and labor, in a context where capital will always be benefiting labor and not the other way round. This is probably an acknowledgement of the fact that under the present phase of free-market enterprise, the state has proven itself such a good accomplice of capital that it need not even be reckoned with. The police, initially evil, are eventually reconciled to the market’s impartial dynamics when the inspector comes round to Jamal’s story and escorts him to the media room.

The upper-class body language of its avowedly slum-dwelling protagonists is a serious lapse in realism. As is the characterization of Anil Kapoor, the superstar quiz master treating the slum dweller in such an exaggeratedly condescending fashion. While one does not necessarily doubt the potential arrogance of Bollywood superstars, the social skills they acquire over years of proximity to the laboring class in the industry belies the crudity of the superciliousness exhibited by Kapoor. The use of English could have been justified by a simple suggestion that the boys picked it up from the streets of Agra or even the call center. But what annoys most is the fact that while they make an attempt to imbue the film with a self-consciously heroic Muslim profile, they overwrite it with a totally Hindu concept of destiny. Ironically, even the credit song jai-ho (rights to which have now been acquired by the Congress Party as their election song) seems to suggest an orchestrated Hindu mass-pilgrimage to Vaishno-devi rather than the triumph of the Muslim underdog.

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