Monday, March 23, 2009

Slumdog: There's more to India than just poverty

Slumdog: There's more to India than just poverty


Ramesh Chander

’SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE’ won four Golden Globes and is on the way to the Oscars. Great. The underdog with an Indian connection has won. I am one of the biggest fans of Rahman and have heard his music for the film. Then I saw the movie. ‘Slumdog’, is no underdog.

Isn’t India poor?

India is a vast and diverse country and is a statistician’s dream. Figures can be twisted anyway. But the fact is that while the poverty rate in India was 40 per cent five years back, it was 60 per cent 25 years back. A 20 per cent jump translates to approximately 200 million people breaking out of poverty line. India has a 300 million strong middle class. While it is a fact that there is still unacceptable poverty in India a clear majority in India are not extremely poor as portrayed in the movie. Still showing extreme poverty is fine. But showing Indians as bloodthirsty, child-beating, eye-plucking people is outrageous.

Aren’t Indian slums are a living hell. Danny Boyle in his interview to an Indian publication has admitted that the slums in India are teaming with industries and entrepreneurs. But in the movie the only ’industry’ he has portrayed in the slums is begging, prostitution and shooting.

When a dollar isn’t a dollar

The most commonly quoted figure to paint India as an impoverished nation is quoting Indian salary in US dollars by using the exchange rate conversion. But a dollar-a-day isn’t really dollar-a-day in India; it is Rs 50-a-day. For many in US one dollar translates into one rupee. A doctor’s visit would be Rs 100 in Indian currency and at least $ 100 in America. Public transport, though very crowded and inefficient, works and a typical daily commute to and from work would be Rs 10 in India and $10 in America. Basic food items are highly subsidised for the poor people through a vast government network. Electricity is free in rural areas. Even the World Bank recognises the fallacies of using the exchange rate and has abandoned this in favour of Purchasing-Power-Parity. It is a pity that lot of publications, know about this and still use the raw exchange rate figures to make their point on poverty in India.

It is just a movie

“Just a movie” can change public perceptions. Even an over-the-top movie like ‘Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom’ was disastrous for changing the views of India for a generation of people. Kal Penn, the Indian American actor, said that after seeing the Indiana Jones movie, his American friends used to avoid him, thinking he eats monkey’s brains. The ‘Slumdog’ movie has been perceived as ‘real’ by the American and world media. Imagine the amount of profiling and impact this movie would have, especially on the lives of children of Indians abroad, who can’t defend themselves.

Do you remember the movie ‘Borat’. When it was released the Kazakistan Government immediately took out a full page ad in ‘New York Times’ talking about the good things that exist in their country. And that movie was just a comedy, which made more fun of Americans than Kazakistan. Why did they do that? Because they realised that it would be the first impression of their country for millions of people and wanted to set it right. From my experience an average American knows as much about India as we know about Kazakistan. Why do perceptions matter? They matter for the sake of our children, who should not hate India and for the sake of foreign investment. The poverty in India is decreasing because people are intelligent and also because of the foreign investment. However much you might lament about inequality of wealth in India, the fact is that in no democratic country in the world have so many people come out of poverty so soon. Of course, every person going hungry is a disgrace and in India there are still millions and millions of them.

One way to help such a huge number of people is by turning India into a communist country but communism has failed miserably or by trickle-down economics. The trickle-down economics has worked wonders in the last decade, despite all its imperfections. The last thing you want is something going wrong in top of the trickle-down economics. I have read lot of Americans saying that they don’t want to visit India after seeing the disgusting scenes.

Is that the way to help poor people?

Isn’t the author of this movie an Indian?
Indians have a long history of degrading themselves in literature and in media. Maybe because some are ‘ultra-liberal’, maybe it is due to age-old perceptions, maybe some feel that they have to dance to the tune of their ‘Western-masters’. But the fact is that many Indians in media and literature perceive (rightly or wrongly is debatable) that their work will be published/seen/recognised only if they write something degrading about India and Indians. I hope that American people can see India for its glorious diversities and not a one-dimensional hell as portrayed in the movie ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. I hope that the Oscar committee would see this movie as a con job to satisfy the Western thirst of superiority and not as ‘rags-to-riches’ story or ‘real’ portrayal of India.

1 comment:

SandhyaDeepak said...

Thank you so much for this article. I felt that I was alone in the way I felt about the portrayal of India in 'SDM'.