Storm of philosophy (part 2): On “Slumdog” (& some more).
While I was home for the holidays, the movie that everyone kept telling me to see was Slumdog Millionaire. I even had two friends offer to see it a second time with me as so I would go and watch it. My friend Jared and I ended up seeing Doubt, but when Jon(-from-Pittsburgh) visited, we went to Slumdog with a large group (my parents and three others of my friends).
I loved it. Despite the fact that you’re really sad for most of the film, at the end you feel so good that everything worked out for this one “slumdog,” you forget the miserable first 90% of the movie. I’m a sucker for all things based on destiny – though not incongruous free will to choose destiny, as previously discussed – and especially so when the destiny is a save-your-life romance (aww). The movie was also really nice for me and Jon to see because it was so India to us, and made us both nostalgic.
Fast forward to my Valentine’s weekend getaway to Bombay with my MATCH roommate, Smita. I had a fabulous time. Smita’s aunt Mita Mavshi also ordered me Domino’s pizza with extra cheese as soon as I arrived, cementing my love for the family from the start. I got a nice driving tour of the city and had plenty of time to shop and gather ideas for the next salwar suit I plan to have stitched. I stayed up late to await the arrival of various Smita family members, and thus had plenty of time for chatting with her and her relatives.
Driving from the airport to their home, we went right through Dharavi, the slums featured in Slumdog. Estimates range from a quarter million to a million people living per square mile in Dharavi, making it the second largest/densest/etc. slum in the world after those in Nairobi. Mita Mavshi said the dilapidated concrete apartments and tin-roof shacks went back far from what we could see from the roadside. Because it was topical, I asked her about how she felt about Slumdog.
I should mention that the few things I’m about to list are not problems just what Mita Mavshi said. There are tons of articles in Indian newspapers about the film, most of which include at least one of the following:
1. “Slumdog” is not an okay word. When I first heard one of my friends in Delhi say, “It’s not right for them to be called ‘dogs,’” I thought maybe there had been a simple cultural misunderstanding. “They call them ‘dogs’ because it’s supposed to make you upset!” I thought. But, the more I read in the papers, I realized that perhaps seeing “slumdog” in the title of a film is like someone from the States seeing “Negro” in a film title. (Don’t ask me about the number of times I’ve heard the casual use of the word “Negro” out here. I try to forget.) Folks out here really, really aren’t okay with it.
2. Paying slum children a salary is complicated. The reason the smallest children featured in Slumdog Millionaire look just like kids from the slums is because they are kids from the slums. So, what do you pay a child from the slums? Slumdog producers chose 1,700 pounds for the boy and 500 pounds for the girl for a month’s work. Basically nothing for a blockbuster. But, that is three times the average yearly salary of an adult in Dharavi. And, the children’s current primary school education is being paid for (they weren’t in school previously). And, supposedly a trust fund has been set up for the kids to go to higher education. But then, they’re still living under tarps! Their parents have mounting medical bills! But what can you do? Do you pay them what is good but not extravagant for their circumstances? Do you make them the real slumdog millionaires? In short, it’s complicated with Slumdog salaries.
3. Slumdog makes India look really, really bad. This is the most important thing and something I definitely did not think of when I saw the film. I’ve been living in India for a decent amount of time now, and I’d seen or heard of everything I saw in Slumdog before. Don’t give street kids money because it just goes to their possibly-abusive “guardian” (give them food instead). Don’t trust random people to guide you properly. Be really, really careful about your water. Etc. But, I’ve also seen all the nice elements of India: the Hindu tenet of “your guest is god,” a diverse and rich cultural history, Amritsar, etc. Watching Slumdog, I didn’t think about what people who had never been to India – or, worse, who don’t know anything about India – would think. People in India are worried about that. What if people think that all Indian adults prey on and corrupt vulnerable youth? What if people think that most Indians are solely money-minded? What if people think that all of India is a dirty, corrupt, backwater country? I can understand this fear. I cringed every time I went down to Pa’s room and saw Trei watching pro-wrestling on TV. A lot of people in India only see America through the lens of B-list television and movies. I get a lot of awkward questions about life in the States because of it. Slumdog is one of but a very few movies about India to be a hit in the West, so I can understand Indians’ concern about their country’s image.
So, this is a strange thing. Slumdog is hugely popular in the West: it just swept the Academy Awards, and my friend Jon (from MATCH) has written to me that going to India is “cool” again. But, people in India have many hesitations. I hope that all of you reading can watch Slumdog without seeing it as all that India is. India is a beautiful country well worth visiting. It has its many problems, but so does every other country.
I should also mention that all fourteen children have moved in (the missing six kids from Padu, Wahmawlein, and Mawlat all came on Tuesday) and we’re having our big inauguration ceremony tomorrow morning. The workers and AMBCV staff spent most of the afternoon today making the house clean, with the kids occasionally helping and occasionally running through the house in muddy shoes. A couple of the girls are having trouble adjusting to the move here, though I think one of them may just be terrified of me in particular. (This happens sometimes to us non-Indians, what with our strange skin, hair, and eye colors.) It’s also a little adventure to have three children from Padu, because out in that side of Meghalaya, they speak a dialect that is near incomprehensible to most folks out in this part of Meghalaya. But, overall, the kids are happy, enjoying their time together, and quickly learning to trust Rilum, Evandahun, and Birialda to take care of them. Also, my friend Dan arrives in India in but two days, and we have quite an epic adventure ahead of us. I feel good about all these things.