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Slumdog draws backlash from India

BY DAN WATSON | FEBRUARY 18, 2009 7:50 AM

A camera focuses on one tiny metal and concrete shack. It pulls away to reveal more huts, seemingly stacked on top of each other. One more zoom out and the audience is presented with the vast underworld of a faraway land; the slums of Mumbai, India.

The scene is stunning and now quite controversial, thanks to the critical and financial success of the movie Slumdog Millionaire, which shot numerous scenes in the slums.

Some residents of Mumbai are infuriated by the film, expressing the notion that the film doesn’t adequately represent the city and, consequently, the country of India as a whole. Some slum residents have begun protesting, holding signs saying “I am not a dog” and calling the movie “poverty porn.” Some slum dwellers are even threatening to sue the Indian actors and crew members who participated in the film by claiming they darkened India’sreputation.

Critics from the slums are not the only people from India upset about the film. Indian film star Amitabh Bachchan, who is portrayed as the hero to the young protagonist Jamal Malik in the film, denounced it on his blog. He said the film shows India as a “Third World, dirty, underbelly developing nation,” though he later said the press took his statements out of context.

Besides accusations of presenting a false image of India, other critics of Slumdog Millionaire are vexed by the inadequate payment given to the film’s two adolescent stars, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail and Rubiana Ali — who are both from the actual slums of Mumbai. According to Britain’s Daily Telegraph, Ismail was paid $2,400 and Ali $1,000 for a month of shooting their respective roles. So far, Slumdog Millionaire has grossed more than $138 million worldwide. The Daily Telegraph story went on to state that director Danny Boyle refutes the claim that the actors were underpaid.

As an American, it is easy to brush off the claims made by the film’s critics. Of course the film is not a precise interpretation of the “real” India — it is after all a movie. Of course it plays up India’s levels of corruption, poverty, crime, and death, but any frequent movie-goer realizes exaggerated depictions sell tickets. And of course, in hindsight, the child actors didn’t get paid enough, but not even Boyle expected Slumdog Millionaire to rake in so much dough.

Still, India’s critics of the film should be heard, because they have a voice and a right to be upset, and Americans can’t be quick to judge, especially given Americans’ own past ire at negative portrayals.
An interesting parallel exists between Slumdog Millionaire and the famous photojournalism book The Americans, by Swiss-born Robert Frank. The Americans is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. In 1959, Frank introduced his project to the United States, and received an onslaught of horrible reviews. The pictures taken by Frank in The Americans depicted a side of the country rarely seen — or at least discussed — by the average U.S. citizen in the 1950s. Frank captured images of the segregated South, depressed housewives, and various other individuals living alternative lifestyles throughout the country. He captured an America minus the plastered-on smiles of the popular magazines (now considered close to nuclear family propaganda) of the time, and Americans were pissed about it. The Museum of Modern Art refused to sell the work. Americans didn’t believe a foreigner had a right to depict their country in a bad light.

Now, The Americans is thought of as one of the most important photojournalism works of all time.
Slumdog Millionaire upset natives of India, as The Americans upset U.S. citizens. Slumdog Millionaire was directed and adapted for the screen by Englishmen, and while the history between India and England may be a driving force behind some of the movie’s controversy, any non-Indian director would have been meat for critics. Imagine if a student from Iowa State University made a successful movie about the UI by depicting our university’s shortcomings and dark sides — many Hawkeyes would be upset.

The controversy around the movie is not about which side is right but is only a natural process associated with great works of art. Soon, it will be enjoyed for its true value — as a masterpiece in modern storytelling.


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