Slumdog’s ‘poverty porn’

Dev Patel (Jamal), Photo: Pathé/Guardian

Dev Patel as Jamal Photo: Associated Press/Guardian

This is the comment piece which I wrote for my course. It expands on a comment I made earlier about Slumdog’s scenes of slum-life being one of the best things in the film:

Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire has been criticised by some, notably Alice Miles in The Times, as “poverty porn”. However its portrayal of slum life was one of the best things in a film that was otherwise formulaic.

The critics, particularly the Indian critics such as leading actor Amitabh Bachchan, have derided the film as unrepresentative of “modern India”; an exploitation of third-world clichés for the entertainment of an exclusively Western audience.

This criticism had been levelled at film makers portraying India before. The pioneer of independent Indian film, Satayajit Ray, was criticised in by right-wingers for “exporting poverty” in films like Pather Panchali (1955). But it is widely acknowledged now that the humanitarian outlook of his films has had a great influence on how worldwide audiences saw and understood India.

Memorable scenes in Slumdog, such as an early scene depicting a violent riot between Muslims and Hindus which results in the death of Jamal’s mother; or where a beggar is deliberately blinded with acid to fetch better money for his mafia owners, are deemed subversively “voyeuristic.” Isn’t nearly all cinema inherently voyeuristic?

But these scenes are not gratuitous titillation, they reflect the realities of life in the slums. Riots (the ‘Bombay Riots’) occurred there in 1992 between Muslims and Hindus and resulted in 900 deaths. And as The Daily Mail reported on January 24: “As many as 44,000 children fall into the clutches of the beggar mafia in India each year and of these, hundreds are deliberately mutilated.” A fact you won’t see represented in any of the escapist Bollywood fare that’s for sure.

The Mail goes onto report that child beggars are not only subject to deliberate blinding but are also subject to such horrors as the amputation of healthy limbs carried out by bribed doctors, suppurating wounds caused by the beggar mafia pouring acid onto them. As well as forced addiction to solvents, alcohol and charras (a powerful often opium-laced hashish) given to them by the beggar mafia to keep them under control. And that’s not even mentioning the chronic malnutrition. Slumdog doesn’t even show half of this.

But that The Mail even reported on this at all is entirely due to the exposure that the film has given to these pressing issues. And the fact that the film was packaged as ‘feel-good’, seen as misleading by those who see it as ‘poverty porn’, is testament to the fact that the film captured mainstream audiences who would normally stay away from anything depicting such graphic poverty. This fact is highlighted by one Hollywood exec that turned down the film by saying “who wants to see misery and street kids?”

But these realities need to be shown in order to expose the world to issues that are often sidelined; ultimately to bring about debate and provoke a desire in people to change the situation. And what better medium than film to do this?

Film’s potential to elicit change through the power of its images and the very pervasiveness of the medium has, of course, been written about and noted by many. Most notably Lenin, who declared it “the most important medium for educating the masses in the ways, means and successes of Communism.”

This lead to a lot of reductive propaganda films. But also highlighted how much films, especially by the likes of Eisenstein and Pudovkin, can be used to make a statement about the human condition and provoke strong feelings about social injustice and inequality.

The foregrounding of poverty in films was also seen to great effect in the neo-realist movement of post-world war two Italy. Films such as Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Roberto Rosselini’s Rome, Open City (1945) helped give a disillusioned Italian lower-class a voice, as well as showing the brutal realities of warfare and unemployment. De Sica once commented that his films were a “struggle against the indifference of society towards suffering”.

It is this indifference and the habit of people, particularly the Indian government, to ignore the poverty which goes on around them which Slumdog works upon. So many people want to believe that such brutality and crimes against basic human rights don’t exist anymore that they attack those that dare to show they do.

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2 Comments

  1. Hear, hear! The more entertaining a film is, the better a carriage it is to its content – reaching further and to more. Therefore there is limited value in cinema treating weighty subjects dryly, or always dealing seriously with serious subjects. The role of art is not that of journalism, although the two may overlap. I think we want to see the human drama of the real world portrayed in films, away from the facts, statistics, reports (all also important) presented elsewhere. Drama gives us the opportunity to draw a qualitative experience not otherwise available to us. And, yes, this does mean walking the line of voyeurism and perhaps stomaching a little more of it than we’d like, but it’s drama, not biography.

    • Exactly right! I think films are sometimes the only way that people will be able to really empathise and connect with others they had no knowledge or understanding of before


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