Friday, February 20, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire: Please civilize us backward Indian savages o great white man

Since the release of Slumdog Millionaire, it has generated a lot of buzz in both western and Indian Media. While most people admired it, it has had its share of critics as well. Most of the ppl who praise it do so because of its "realistic" portrayal of India and brilliant cinematography. Among the critics, there are those who do it for very simplistic reasons, and then those who criticize it intelligently. I tend to agree with this latter group. To begin with, one has to place Slumdog Millionaire in the historical context of how India has been portrayed in Western films. According to sociological researcher Srividya Ramasubramanium, Western films have consistently portrayed India as backward, uncivilized and savage. In most movies, they show an India without history, without cultural depth. Basically an India that hasn't contributed any meaningful universal ideas to the world. The sad thing is that most Indians have been brainwashed into this westernized view of India. Four hundred years of British colonization have drilled the inferiority of Indians and Indian "way of life" to the West into the psyche of many generations of Indians (especially the educated upper-middle class and rich Indian youth). The problem I have with Slumdog millionaire isn't the fact that it shows poverty, but the way it showes it and how Indians themselves are portrayed. There have been many deep intelligent Indian films that have shown poverty, but placed it within the richness, depth and diversity of Indian culture (e.g Shyam Benegal's Manthan, Govind Nihalini's Aakrosh, Kamal Hassan's Mahanadhi). These films show the richness and complexity of the Indian family structure and the complexity of the individuals who are afflicted with poverty. In boyle's film, the characters are all one dimensional. Almost every single Indian in that movie is cruel. There is no depth or complexity to any of them. From the police officers who just torture the main character, to the game show host who just mistreats him, the game show audience who just laugh at him, to the gangsters. to even his friend Salim, who's just shown as simple-minded and cruel. Here's a quote from Shirley Ruth Steinberg (Phd) from the International Project for critical pedagogy: "The primitive and barbaric nature of India is the pervasive theme, one particularly memorable film depicts a young Jamil, intent on seeing his favourite film star, jump in an outhouse of shit, climb through it, and run to the star with a photo for an autograph, covered in shit. His hero signs the photo, even though the boy is feces-covered. The clear message is that Jamil is so simple, that it is worth it to swim through a scatalogical swamp to get an autograph." To sum up, slumdog's depictions of India follows hollywood's traditon of showing India as a backwards, uncivilized country. It is trivializing, demonizing, racist, and absurd in content.