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