(Don’t read this if you haven’t seen the movie, because it contains spoilers.)
Gangs of rail-thin children run from a club-wielding policeman, a satellite view of a maze of tin-roofed shacks extends for miles, children climb mountains of trash scavenging for anything they can sell. Acres of plastic bags, garbage and broken junk from their own upper classes and the first world. Slumdog Millionaire ups the ante of dramatized assaults on children, but the incidental scenes of daily life, with all those anonymous child extras, recalls the old saying ‘poverty is violence’.
Slumdog Millionaire is not a feel-good movie, but it’s too simple to call it ‘poverty porn’. It seems to me like a slick blend of reality and movie cliche, with the reality so heavy and compelling that it gives the film more credibility than it deserves. I sat in the Avon theater, overstuffed from an eating binge, and I saw skinny, hungry children running and laughing. An abstraction is now real to me in a way I can’t undo, and I’m glad for it, though it causes me discomfort.
There’s nothing on the net about the Mumbai children who played the small roles except for two of them who supposedly have a trust fund they can access when they finish school. One of the adult professional actors, Anil Kapoor, who plays a nasty talk-show host, has donated his fee for the movie to Plan India, a children’s charity–
“I think it is the good wishes and blessings of the children that were instrumental in the success of the film.” The actor staunchly defends the film, that has been criticised in certain sections for portraying the dark underbelly of Mumbai– dirty slums and poverty.
There’s plenty of footage of real people living without enough food, clean water, privacy or safety, but like the dog that didn’t bark, something is missing. When the three main characters, brothers Jamal and Salim, and a little girl named Latika are orphaned in a religious attack there is no adult anywhere who shows them mercy. No one from their mosque, no teacher from their school, no surviving kin. They live picking trash, until they are lured into a camp of abandoned children run by traffickers.
This leads to a film depiction of violence against a child that is so graphic and shocking that I won’t describe it here. I’ll only say that director Danny Boyle has raised the bar. When the movie was shown to an audience of slum children in Mumbai, that scene made them gasp. They said that they were sure such things happened, but not in their neighborhood.
Vikas Swarup, the author of the novel that inspired the movie, admitted that he was going for dramatic effect.
“This isn’t social critique,” he objects. “It’s a novel written by someone who uses what he finds to tell a story… It may be an urban myth, but it’s useful to my story.”
Violence in a novel is created in the reader’s mind by words on a page. Violence in cinema isn’t mediated that way. It goes straight to the primitive brain that doesn’t know real from fake and sets the heart racing. It’s a powerful stimulant. It works that way in Shakespeare and in slasher movies.
Raising the bar of child abuse has an interesting effect on the viewer’s experience of ‘Slumdog’. When the child Latika, flat chested and baby faced, is abducted by criminals who will force her into prostitution, you think, ‘hey, it could be worse. At least they didn’t do to her what they did to that poor little boy.’ When teenage Salim murders one of the bad guys, you just wonder what took him so long. When the adult Jamal is tortured by corrupt police you figure he’s probably used to it, and actually he looks just fine the next day, without a mark on him.
It kind of feeds into the general heartlessness of the movie. The child extras bring so much real warmth on screen that it’s awhile before you notice that the dog didn’t bark. But this movie shows an India that is without any expression of justice or mercy. Every authority is corrupt and sadistic. No Indian adult shows any interest in the orphans except to beat them or horribly exploit them. The only people who object to this mistreatment are American tourists, and they come off as saps. Salim, the older brother, repeatedly betrays Jamal, and can only redeem himself by dying. The pure relationship is the romantic love between Jamal and Latika. This love can’t prevail unless Jamal becomes rich. The dog that didn’t bark is the lack of any depiction of poor people helping one another to survive.
Danny Boyle was interviewed on NPR and remarked on the organization and resourcefulness of the Mumbai slum-dwellers. If there is such a thing as a universal human nature, then mutual aid is as necessary to survival as food and water. Poor people especially need to look to relationships, because they can’t buy their way out of every problem. That’s the heart that is missing from this movie. Where the dead brother and all the collateral abused children are forgotten in the final screen kiss, there’s lots of money and everyone is dancing.