Posted by: Vikram | January 25, 2009

Swades vs Slumdog Millionaire

A few years ago I saw a movie that showed me an India I had never even contemplated. The neglect, the discrimination and the bigotry that pervade my country were brought home without comprising the dignity of the poor1.

It is possible to think positively about Slumdog. The movie has some good cinematic qualities. It can be seen as a tribute to the struggles of India’s urban poor. Twenty years down the line, if (and its an enormous if) India can rectify its slum problems, then perhaps the next generation of Indians can get a chance to see how difficult life really was for the people who built the country they live in.

What irks me is the chorus of patronizing outsiders and their parroting Indian counterparts who have suddenly been enlightened by this movie, and want to tell apathetic/jingoistic/nationalistic middle-class Indians how much we really suck. Do they realize how thin the line is between being a middle class ‘enclave dweller’ and a slumdog in Mumbai ? So who has the blinkers on ? All of a sudden, the movie is all over India’s English language media, which is ironically also the outsider’s principle punching bag for portraying an imaginary ‘shining’ India.

Slumdog and Swades are both about injustice. But Slumdog is itself unjust to the people it claims to represent. It denies them their dignity, the same thing India’s upper castes have denied them for centuries. Swades makes one realize how psychological ‘garibi’ really is and how progress has to be preceded by awakening. How one has to fight, no matter what. Fight is something that the residents of Dharavi do too, but it is their plight not their fight that is the setting for Slumdog.

Slumdog, I am afraid can awaken no one. Most urban Indians know their country is poor. They know their domestic helpers/drivers/washermen live in slums. They see street children begging everyday. They are not apathetic, they are mostly overwhelmed and helpless. One car accident, one fraud or one factory closure, and these same ‘apathetic’ Indians will be in the slums they supposedly ignore. If you spend 30 % of your life in an overcrowded commuter train/bus, 50 % in a super competitive workplace, and the rest running around trying to pay bills, get water, electricity, it is hard to sit and think about slum dwellers.

Slums are a symptom but not the cause of poverty in India. Watching Swades makes one realize what is. Why people can leave everything in their villages and live in sub-human conditions in cities. If tomorrow Mumbai’s slums problems are mitigated and come down to the levels seen in Bangalore and Chennai2, it will mean very little in the broader problem of poverty and neglect in rural India. Because these issues need an awakening to be resolved, something that Swades does and Slumdog, even though it is cinematically sound, cannot.

Footnotes:

1: Btw, the story of Swades is based on the story of the founders of AID and a project we supported.

2: About 60 % of Mumbai’s population lives in slums, as opposed to 18 % in Chennai and 10 % in Bangalore.

People, I highly recommend reading this post by Mr. Anil Mavinkurve on his visit to Dharavi and the kind of change needed there.

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Responses

  1. Great Blog and great observations!
    Very right you are when you say that if tommorrow Bombay becomes inaccessible, it will be Bengaluru or Chennai tomorrow!
    Rightly we need to get into the root of the problem. But who has time, and what slumdog has done is great but what swades had done was a different genre.
    One was about the urban scene and the other about rural, albeit different, deeply connected.
    As you mentioned ‘if’ 20 years down the lane if we are released from poverty…. it always will be an ‘if’ but for our democratic beaurocracy and politics. What we need in our country is Leaders and not politicians which we have been subjected since 1950. And on this eve of our 60th Republic Day things are largely still the same but for a few things here and there. Let us hope, cause maybe its written!

  2. You are correct. This movie has been made only to show the western audience as to how bad living conditions could be and it consistently shows only the negative elements like some sensor had intervened and cut the positive/neutral happenings in their lives. But it is good for us, as it shows the India that we don’t want to see and hence wakes us up to the plight of the people who might be in our very locality.

    Destination Infinity

  3. @ Welcome Vivek. Yes, 60 years of being a republic and not much seems different. But I feel the deep change has happened within the psychology of Indians, they just have to start judging politcians based on their performance and make psychological change turn into physical/economic change.

    @ DI, I dont think we dont want to see these representation, even after seeing it, all that will happen is some charitable words will be spoken and the movie will be forgotten. The movie does not bring anything new to the table. Swades does, it shows us that caste and inequality are still present even today.

  4. @ DI,
    I agree what Vikram has to say, why live in a fools paradise when it’s hell in the porch! The very reason we are in denial over ‘Slumdog Millionnaire’ is the fact that we are not so used to being confronted by the real truth about our country. So true depction of our nation both positive and negative will only awaken us to confront these challenges!

  5. “But it is good for us, as it shows the India that we don’t want to see and hence wakes us up to the plight of the people who might be in our very locality.”

    DI, can you tell me how many Indians (living in India) don’t know the plight of people when they see it and likely experience it themselves on a daily basis? So, who exactly is this movie awakening? 🙂

    And it’s not the job of an average citizen to tackle poverty (though they can – and do help whenever they can) – that’s the job of policy-makers we elect.

  6. Cinematically I dont think there is any comparison between Swades and Slumdog.

    While the subject of Swades is good, Slumdog’s execution is far superior to Swades

  7. @ Vikram : Personally I enjoyed the movie. Its good solid entertainment. Although you would know better I have never been to Bombay so I have no clue about how life is there.

    I live in a house in which we have two maids. Their family has served us for generations with their generations. Recently one of the maid’s passed away and I went down with my mother to pay my condolences to their home. They live in a duplex house in a ‘colony’. The place had broken roads but other than that it was not bad at all, compared that with Delhi or Bombay’s places it is appalling. I always feel that difference between ‘levels’ in society gets larger in Indian metropolitan cities.

    As for Swades I am sorry to say it was Boring! It was also PREACHY. I liked slumdog better and I thoroughly had fun watching it. The movie has a sense of humour albeit very dark humour.

  8. Watching the two videos conveyed the idea that you were sharing.. I never thought this way..Interesting..Yes,there is difference in the way poverty ahs been portrayed in both these movies..then again,lets think of it as two different concepts ,two different people’s ideas and films..

    I just hope that after so much of discussion,this movie will bring some little effort of change in the direction..

    I do not agree with Amit when he says that it si not th duty of common man,but of government to help these people..By voting once in 5 years,is everything over from our part? We ahve this attitude and hence the politicians behave this way ..they smile this year,smile again (to us) after 5 years..Our insensitiveness is a good opportunity for them to do whatever they want during the 5 years..What a joke we have made out fo democracy..

    Great post Vikram..thanks for visiting my blog 🙂

    Good day

  9. I don’t understand that why would you assume that Danny Boyle wants to awake anyone? Maybe he just made a film and thats that. Sometimes I think we tend to over analyze and over expect from a film maker.
    And I second Amit’s views that all Indians know the existent poverty. Awakening comes from inside not from a cinema hall. Why should a movie motivate us? Our surroundings should do that automatically!

    I recognize the words “middle class “enclave dweller” from Shefaly’s post and your comments there.

  10. Dharavi is a hell hole in Mumbai.

    (Recommend read – My Post http://mavins-voice.blogspot.com/2008/08/spring-of-hope-in-ghetto-of-despair.html)

    You have businesses, economic activity, dirt, squalor, fights, gangs and everything that you can imagine out there.

    I have not seen Slumdog Millionaire so cannot comment on how they have treated this subject.

    The fact is Dharavi is a ghetto and in bad shape It represents collective failure of the government, administration and society at large. Some sections in India revel in this sort of depiction while many take it as an affront.

    I have never understood one thing – why do films like S M always get acclaim and prominence and others like Lagaan or Taare Zameen Par are just brushed aside. Therein lies a tale which we have not understood.

    The English media has long lost touch with reality in India and now appear hopelessly out of depth and seem to have their own agenda.

    If you were to examine the Dharavi phenomenon further, one can trace this to lop sided development and absence of opportunity in the hinterland.

    A common thread runs through your posts on Density of cities, Entrepreneurship in the hinterland and this one.

    Development has bypassed many parts of India and the real answer lies there.

    Now to come back to your post -Swades highlights the tight grip of feudal outlook, prejudice and small mindedness in a village. A film, however, tends to romanticise and makes the process of change appear easy and quick. It is atleast an eye opener.

    Every nation has social ills and they are uncomfortable talking about them. I do not remember any film which has got ten Oscar nominations and which critically deals with the problems of blacks or the neglect of New Orleans after Katrina or explores for us the anatomy of gang warfare in some ghetto out there or the illtreatment of Aborigines in Australia.

    In the guise of artistic freedom, we always take pride in mocking at ourselves. Do we call it liberalism, open mindedness, true democracy or what???

  11. This is a film, that’s all. A story about a boy who made it big. It’s not a documentary on India’s poverty. Sure, some things were sensationalised, but that’s what films do. Dramatize. And as it was made by a foreigner he put things in it to hook the western audience, not try and tell Indians anything. He doesn’t really care about India. The film shows his lack of love for India. But I guess that’s what made it interesting, to see India like that, from an objective and cold perspective. I was okay with it. We need films from all perspectives.

  12. Nimmy, I’m not sure that there’s anything to disagree with, and even if you do, that’s not going to change the facts. The fact of the matter is that the measures and policies that have the potential to mitigate poverty in a big way are made by policy-makers, not an average Indian who works hard 9-5 (or similar hours), comes home tired and has spouse and children to deal with. An average person would donate some money/time to an organization or help out some individuals, and vote responsibly, but other than that, what do you think s/he can do that would make large-scale changes to the poverty levels? Why don’t you share with us what you do for a living, and other than possibly small attempts on your part which affect a few individuals (unless you work for an NGO or government department working to make the lives of poor people better), how do you alleviate poverty? I’d be happy to read and change my views. I also didn’t use the word “duty” – I used the word “job,” and there’s a difference between the two.

  13. Vivek Gopinathan, I can name many Indian movies off the top of my head that depicted all the real unpleasant truths about India, starting with Ankur, Manthan, Ardh Satya, Aakrosh, Paar, Do Bigha Zameen, Boot Polish, Satya, Black Friday, Maachis etc. These are just in Hindi language, I’m sure there must be a few movies in regional languages too.

    I take it that you were unaware of all these Indian movies I mentioned, or haven’t seen them? 🙂

  14. @Mumbai. I am not a movie critic, so I cant really compare the two movies except for my own feelings. In any case this post was more about people’s perceptions of Slumdog than comparing them as movies.

    @Odzer, I have already mentioned Slumdog is important in my previous post which was about the movie specifically as a piece of cinema. And yes, the difference between sections of society is less in the smaller cities. I noticed this when I would go to Indore as a child. Perhaps thats why India’s low Gini index surprises people, they just see Mumbai and Kolkata and make their mind up from that. On the other hand the methodology of computing Gini indexes has itself been questioned.

  15. @Nimmy, thank you. You have said it very well. But I will stick by my (and Amit’s) poistion that there is not a whole lot middle class Indians can do about poverty in India. Maybe that deserves another post by itself.

    @Reema, that comment on Shefaly’s blog has gotten me into a bit of trouble. It was the wrong thing to say. Although this post has nothing to do with her views. The ‘enclave’ thing is used by many western sources and second generation Indians here in the US.

    Reema, I never said Danny Boyle made this movie to awaken anybody. But that is how this movie is being interpreted by the Western and now the English language Indian media. The thesis seems to be that such a movie has never been made by Indians before, and by making this movie the West has enlightened us about what we are. We have been exposed according to them.

    You are right we should not need a movie to awaken us, but I for one would not have known about caste in India’s villages like I do now had I not seen Swades.

  16. @ Mavin, thank you for your excellent comment. I do not take Slumdog as an affront. In fact I was among the first people to watch and acknowledge it. Swades was an eye-opener atleast for a city boy like me. If you had asked me before watching Swades, what India problem’s were, casteism and feudal attittudes in rural India would not have been high on the least. I would have identified slums as the ‘problem’ rather identify them as an escape and an opportunity for the rural people.

    @ Nita, like I have pointed out, my problem is not with the movie but with people’s response to it and it being called ‘eye-opener’ etc. Yes, Boyle’s perspective is cold but I wouldnt call it objective. Slumdog is not the story of people in Dharavi it just uses Dharavi for sensationalism and titillation.

  17. Dude Vikram Garg, Your comparision is flawed for 3 simple reasons buddy:

    1. Swades never meant to show India’s poverty, it was made to portray the parochial attitudes of Indians and the way new generation Indians perceive their country. Nothing to do with slums, garibhi or any parameters you mentioned in your blog. And SM’s is not abt Dharivi or the poverty of the country, it is abt 3 characters whose life happens to start from the slums…so don’t confuse people by analyzing things wrongly.

    Swades was made with many aims. And the scene I have linked is evidence that it wanted to talk about poverty in India. I never said SM is solely about poverty, did I say this ? I commented on how some people have interpreted the movie vis-a-vis the middle class and India’s own film industry.

    2. Swades is a movie with a message while SM is a movie based on a book written by India’s own Vikas Swarup.

    I am not debating here, which country can lay claim to the movie, again no one can say that a movie has a message or not. Movies are made and then they are interpreted.

    3. Swades was meant to bring a change in the attitudes of young Indians and SM doesn’t make any such attempts.

    You said my analysis fails on 3 distinct counts, but every point you state is essentially the same. Read them again. 😀

    I am sorry to say this that your analysis and comparisonal judgment you exhibited fall flat on this subject.

    Yes, totally, given the three completely independent problems you have idenitified 😉

    And the biggest BS you have written is about “patronizing outsiders and their parroting Indian counterparts”, you couldn’t be so far from truth here dude, people like the movie and nothing else other than that. There are worst slums in Latin America and S.E Asia then Mumbai, so it is not the first time Westerners are seeing such visuals.

    I did give a link about the patronizing outsiders, I can give you plenty more if you want. As for parroting Indians, look no far than NDTV’s extensive interviewing of Danny Boyle and a bunch of Indian movie stars on the red carpet, “Oh! You know this is the real India !”

    And finally, the video comparison you have used to bring out the points in your blog is ridiculous. You have chosen scenes as per your convenience and you used your own biases to make a comparison when both the movies or their depictions have nothing in common.

    I am trying to prove a point, and I will obviously use evidence that does prove my point, wont I ? Both those scenes represent the same thing, desperation.

  18. “I am trying to prove a point, and I will obviously use evidence that does prove my point, wont I ? Both those scenes represent the same thing, desperation.”

    Dude, you are trying to prove a point which is wrong and which is why using biased judgment isn’t going to make your point right. As a PhD student, you shld better know that objectivity shld be the cornerstone of any analytical discussion and not subjectivity(as you have chosen to exhibit in the above blog of yours).

    And finally, Mr. Right ‘O!

    “You said my analysis fails on 3 distinct counts, but every point you state is essentially the same. Read them again. :D”

    I expected you to look behind the points I made and unfortunately you have chosen to take them at face value and hence your stmt above. Good Luck with your research and thesis buddy, for you can do better!

  19. “All of a sudden, the movie is all over India’s English language media, which is ironically also the outsider’s principle punching bag for portraying an imaginary ’shining’ India.”

    ______________________________________

    I COULDN’T AGREE WITH YOU MORE ON THIS ONE!

  20. PS: You are spot on with your observations!

    Thanks Deebe, and Welcome to my blog.

  21. http://yayaver.blogspot.com/2009/01/swades5-years-onward.html

    Just written the review about this movie after 5 years of its release.The aritcle is mostly from cinematic point of view but hope,you can understand my point of view about Swades.

    Regarding SM,Slumdog Millionaire is not an Indian film as the media seemed to project, rather it’s a British film with an Indian context. And so instead of proclaiming this as our conquest on the global stage, we should lament why anyone from our own industry couldn’t achieve this feat. Slumdog Millionaire is a post-Dickens epic that is visually brilliant, supra-entertaining thriller – a true dollar-wasul funtime.

  22. Danny Boyle has treated real problems of India with masala story in a vibrant way;He has made what he really wanted but the truth/reality is not depicted. Movie is tour-de-force but runs too fast without having any depth.It reminds me of Salim Javed movies of 1970’s with lot of twist and colorful songs.Only melodrama part is missing,the rest of all is here .Remember Gandhi by British director Richard Attenborough with Ben Kingsley;It was movie of an Indian but what was achieved from it in bollywood except Oscar to dress designer Bhanu Athaiya.Same is with Rahman’s association with Danny Boyle.Geniuses of AR Rahman is recognized now abroad because he is original(by international standard also).I liked Slumdog millionaire, but it is nowhere in the class of Salaam Bombay! or Dharavi, which dealt with a similar theme (problems if not theme).


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