Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 24, 2009

A second look at “Slumdog Millionaire”

Filed under: Film,india — louisproyect @ 7:07 pm

Not long after I posted my rave review of Slumdog Millionaire, an old friend from Bard College whose politics can be described as a shade to the left of the Nation Magazine, informed that he did not care for the movie at all. Here are the final paragraphs of his review that appears on a group blog initiated by Richard Greener, another Bard graduate and old friend:

What I remember most vividly are the scenes of homicidal communal violence, universal indifference to the fate of helpless children, their blinding, maiming and daily exploitation (all presented as normal features of life in the big city) the routine use of torture on the merest suspicion by everyday police (this little station keep electrical equipment on hand for the purpose) and a general, straightforward, unabashed level of social snobbery so smarmy as to register in the pit of the stomach.

This is, however, no expose. The extensive scenes noted serve only as background for a facile and ultimately silly romance devolving on the conceit described. The action is camera driven. The tension relies on manufactured delay and forced uncertainty. The characters aspire neither to depth, texture, nor personality. The girl is typically beautiful notwithstanding the dreadful scar inflicted by her vedddy vedddy bad tormentors.

Most strikingly, the creative sensibility betrays no larger or principled interest in its depiction of abominations. The fiendish use of small children is mere local color.

Those with strong stomachs and a taste for formulaic melodrama in distant lands may buy it. Many have and no doubt will. I found it the creepiest motion picture I have seen in a long, long time. Creepier still is the popular practice of describing – and, I must conclude, experiencing – Slumdog Millionaire as a “feelgood” movie.

Since I have lots of respect for my friend’s opinion (he shamed me into disavowing my conservative political beliefs in 1961), I found myself thinking more and more about whether my take on the movie was correct. Although I obviously can’t retract the pleasure I took in the movie as entertainment, was my take on the movie’s politics still valid? This is what I said in my review:

As should be obvious from the plot, “Slumdog Millionaire” is a very old-fashioned rags-to-riches love story. Indeed, as should be clear from the screenplay’s similarities to “Oliver Twist”, there is something positively Dickensian about Jamal’s story. In the same way that class distinctions in Victorian England forced a sensitive novelist to take up the plight of the poor, so were the makers of Slumdog Millionaire inspired to expose the brutality of life in the slums of Mumbai, a point of view that can not be found in Thomas Friedman’s gushing over the benefits of globalization in India. Indeed, what distinguishes Slumdog Millionaire from conventional Bollywood efforts is its determination to call attention to the realities of slum conditions in India. In doing so, they have much more in common with some of the more critical-minded Indian movies like Deepa Mehta’s “Water,” a film also about children being forced to become beggars, and Shonali Bose’s Amu, which takes up the question of the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984. Like the main character in Amu, the three children in Slumdog Millionaire also lost their parents as a result of anti-Moslem violence.

As I read my words now for the first time since I wrote them, I feel relatively sure that I got this movie right especially in my description of it as “Dickensian”. Although I have many problems with George Orwell, especially the Stalinophobia of his latter years, I find his essay on Dickens most instructive, particularly in its ability to see the value of his novels despite their Victorian prejudices. This, in particular, seems to hit the mark:

The truth is that Dickens’s criticism of society is almost exclusively moral. Hence the utter lack of any constructive suggestion anywhere in his work. He attacks the law, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places. Of course it is not necessarily the business of a novelist, or a satirist, to make constructive suggestions, but the point is that Dickens’s attitude is at bottom not even destructive. There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as ‘human nature’. It would be difficult to point anywhere in his books to a passage suggesting that the economic system is wrong as a system. Nowhere, for instance, does he make any attack on private enterprise or private property. Even in a book like Our Mutual Friend, which turns on the power of corpses to interfere with living people by means of idiotic wills, it does not occur to him to suggest that individuals ought not to have this irresponsible power.

This would certainly apply to Slumdog Millionaire as well. By comparison, Amu is far more politically incisive-a function no doubt of the radical politics of the husband and wife who produced and directed this terrific movie.  The anti-Sikh violence in Amu is depicted as based in reactionary institutions that would seek scapegoats in non-Hindu peoples, while the anti-Muslim violence in Slumdog is unexplained-we witness it almost as a natural phenomenon, like a cyclone. Furthermore, the deliverance of Slumdog’s hero from poverty is seen in strictly Dickensian terms, as a function of coincidence and the generosity of decent people. Of course, as a formula for transforming the slums of India, this is virtually useless.

In the Guardian Newspaper’s Comment is Free blog, City University professor Hirsh Sawhney takes exception to the movie’s imposition of “Western values” on India:

After watching the film, viewers are left to infer that slums are horrid, rancid places because of beggar masters, Hindu zealots and Muslim gangs. Of course these forces play their role in perpetuating misery. But in reality, slums are an international problem caused by an intricate set of entities: corrupt government officials, gargantuan multinational corporations and suspect IMF structural adjustment programs.

Playing it safe, Boyle doesn’t implicate any of these entities. As a result, his movie does allow us to believe that we have been responsible global citizens by engaging with the intensity of third world slums. We in the audience even feel genuine sympathy for destitution. But at no point do we have to forsake the delusion that abject poverty and inequity are strictly foreign things for which we share no culpability.

In fact, far from spreading the blame for global poverty, Boyle’s film actually suggests that the west is the solution to India’s problems. Protagonist Jamal only escapes his ceaseless cycle of squalor and crime once he makes it into the orderly, democratic world of a British call centre. This call centre, in turn, delivers him to his fateful redemption on Millionaire. The subtext is clear: things are really bad in urban India but healthy servings of western values are just what the doctor – and the Academy judges – ordered.

While I am sympathetic to Sawhney’s obviously leftist perspective, I truly wonder how any movie can identify the cause of slums in IMF structural adjustment programs, unless you are talking about a documentary. I also doubt that the call centre in Slumdog has the redemptive qualities ascribed to it by Sawhney. Most people probably reacted to it in the same way I did, as an alienating, exploitative white-collar sweatshop.

Another leftist critique of Slumdog appeared in Counterpunch. In Slumdog Millionaire’s Dehumanizing View of India’s Poor, author Mitu Sengupta, a professor at Ryerson College in Canada, argues:

It is no secret that Slumdog is meant to reflect life in Dharavi, the vast sprawl of slums at the heart of Mumbai. The film depicts Dharavi as a feral wasteland, with little evidence of order, community or compassion. Other than the children, the no-one is even remotely well-intentioned. Hustlers and petty warlords run amok, and even Jamal’s schoolteacher is inexplicably callous. This is a place of sheer evil and decay.

But nothing is further from the truth. Dharavi teems with dynamism, and is a hub of small-scale industries, whose estimated annual turnover is between US$50 to $100 million. Nor is Dharavi bereft of governing structures and productive social relations. Residents have built strong collaborative networks, often across potentially volatile lines of caste and religion. Many cooperative societies work together with NGOs to provide residents with essential services such as basic healthcare, schooling and waste disposal, often compensating for the formal government’s woeful inadequacy in meeting their needs. Although these under-resourced organizations have touched only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, their efforts must be acknowledged, along with the fact that slum-dwellers, despite their grinding poverty, have lives of value and dignity, and a resourcefulness that stretches far beyond the haphazard, individualistic survival-of-the-fittest sort shown in Slumdog.

In the end, Slumdog presents a profoundly dehumanizing view of the poor, with all its troubling political implications. Since there are no internal resources, and none capable of constructive voice or action, all “solutions” must arrive externally. After a harrowing life in an anarchic wilderness, salvation finally comes to Jamal in the form of an imported quiz-show, which he succeeds in thanks only to “destiny.” Must other unfortunates, like the stoic Jamal, patiently await their own destinies of rescue by a foreign hand? While this self-billed “feel good movie of the year” may help us “feel good” that we are among the lucky ones on earth, it delivers a patronizing, colonial and ultimately sham statement on social justice for those who are not.

While I find Sengupta’s observations correct, I have to repeat the same concern I had with Sawhney’s disappointment over the absence of an analysis of the role of IMF structural adjustments. What kind of film can both be an Indian version of Oliver Twist (this is really what it was when you stop and think about it) and fully describe the roles of NGO’s and coops? The answer is none.

23 Comments »

  1. I tend to agree with Jeffrey Marlin on this movie. “Slumdog Millionaire” is really just a perverse Disney film, or the sort of thing one might find on the ABC Family Channel, if one of their programming executives got stoned one afternoon. That the movie may be an accurate picture of both India and Mumbai hardly seems, to me anyway, to add to its entertainment value. I watched the whole thing and I was… sort of put off by it, offended and made uncomfortable, and not particularly entertained or educated in any worthwhile manner. It’s a good thing I saw a bootleg DVD because I don’t think this would be a decent way to spend my money.

    Comment by Richard Greener — February 24, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

  2. The London of the 19th century was also ‘teeming with dynamism’. I think your comparison with Dickens is very apt.

    Comment by dave — February 24, 2009 @ 8:22 pm

  3. Your comparison of Slumdog to Oliver Twist is apt; in the past few weeks I’ve watched three versions of Twist. After watching the musical Oliver! with me, my wife posed the question: “so what happens to the rest of the orphans?” pinpointing the huge hole in the heart of Dickens’ great storytelling. Same as in A Christmas Carol: Tiny Tim is saved, bit what about all the other children?

    I also see Slumdog as a story which shows us aspects of hard life in India (including the violence perpetrated against muslims, about which most of us know little)as a backdrop to the story, which admittedly did not pose answers about what happens to the other slumdogs.

    It is a better fairytale for including some realities to be acknowledged (as Dickens did), but other than that, it is not a great consciousness-raising tool. I don’t think it needs to be.

    Comment by jp — February 24, 2009 @ 8:40 pm

  4. My main point in writing the post to which Louis generously refers was a personal one. I just can’t imagine how one watches realistic scenes of child mutilation and prostitution, and then feels good – even should every last June Taylor dancer be dug up and turned loose at the finish.

    Comment by J. Marlin — February 24, 2009 @ 9:06 pm

  5. >>I just can’t imagine how one watches realistic scenes of child mutilation and prostitution, and then feels good – even should every last June Taylor dancer be dug up and turned loose at the finish.<<

    So films should never try to depict such things? Or they should never try to depict such things realistically, just stylishly? Or they should never try to marry such realism with a neat little narrative that has a satisfying ending for any who feel for the ‘hero’?

    I realize few Americans will understand the Hindu-on-Muslim violence of Mumbai (it might have been nice had a few connected ethnic cleansing of Mumbai from 15 years ago with the recent terrorist attacks, but neither news nor film can help the provincials of the superpower that much).

    Perhaps Boyle ought to be tasked with putting together a documentary about life in the slums of Mumbai. I suggest he get John Pilger to direct.

    Comment by Charles Jannuzi — February 25, 2009 @ 6:54 am

  6. Mitu Sengupta’s review was one of the more idiotic things I read on this movie. She whines again and again the film doesn’t show this aspect and that aspect. Her small speech on Dharavi’s dynamism was emblematic of this sort of thing.

    If Boyle has to make this movie to win approval of Sengupta’s kind then it would have stretched it’s duration to 10 hours.

    I wonder why Sengupta did not complain that the movie doesn’t mention the names of Gandhi and Tagore.

    I saw the movie after reading your review. And I have to agree with you. A very entertaining movie within the confines of Mainstream. The movie doesn’t claim to be a radical critique of Society.

    Comment by Ajit — February 25, 2009 @ 7:11 am

  7. The refusal to leave any space at all in life for “immoral” fun brings to mind Sir Toby Belch’s remark to Malvolio in “Twelfth Night”. (Of course Shakespeare was an imperialist.) “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

    Comment by Peter Byrne — February 25, 2009 @ 7:32 am

  8. I didn’t watch the movie and probably I will not as its “realism” seems too much for my tastes. Concerning realism, the movie’s realistic representation of the Mumbai slums, I think we shouldn’t confuse “Dickensian” plain realism with magical realism of, for instance, Garcia Marquez, whose works would offer a better comparison to “Slumdog Millionaire”.

    A couple of years ago, in his reality news show, a prominent Turkish journalist disclosed a despicable scandal involving the roofing-tile factories of the developed Marmara region which employ the forced labor of Kurdish children hired out from their patents residing in the eastern countryside of the country. This was the most distressing TV show I had ever watched, the living conditions of those slave-children was the perfect modern day resuscitation of the stories quoted by Marx in Capital. But, surprisingly for the readers here who expect me to state that this scandal has changed a lot of things, through the courage and the fidelity of the journalist to the reality of Western Turkey’s industrial development, Kurdish children have now freed from slave labor, I can only admit with grief: Nothing has changed, the reality failed, or more properly, fantasy about the inevitable spontaneity of poverty and destiny prevailed over the reality. This is the dead end of “Dickensian” plain realism. Marx’s Capital would be consisting of only one chapter, the chapter called “Machinery and Modern Industry” if he was a realist preoccupied with appearances.

    If we go through magical realism the distinction is striking, as Marquez once pointed out, its central concern is to abolish the border line between reality and fantasy. The defense function of fantasy that enables us to avoid the traumatic scene is here introduced as the determinant which structures the very traumatic content of reality. Fantasy prevails again but in a reversed extreme form by totally subjecting reality to its authority. The central question of the neurotic fantasy, “what the Other wants from me?” turns into the inverted question of perversion as “how can I satisfy the Other?” as for Lacan, “…intersubjective relation is lost its place to sustain the perverse fantasy of serving the Other’s jouissance”. Doesn’t the protagonist of “Slumdog Millionaire” satisfy the Other in his own peculiar way by transforming his coincidental knowledge piled up in his experience of poverty and desolation into an instrument to escape from Mumbai slums? Is not the reality of the global capitalism’s objective violence which is particularly materialized in the slums of Mumbai presented as immersed in the perverse fantasy of the protagonist?

    I certainly agree with Louis that it is proper to a documentary to reflect the dialectical complexity of the conditions of slums, the involvement of IMF’s destructive monetary policies, etc. and my objection is not to “Dickensian” realism or to genuine fantastic artwork, such as Woody Allen’s brilliant movie Sleeper (which I watched recently), they both reflect the dominant ideologies of the world which they originated respectively from Victorian England and the USA of the Cold War period as “the lived experience of individuals”. But the question is, as Alain Badiou puts it, how not to be a formalist-Romantic, contrary to the dominant current of contemporary art i.e. the mixture of modernism’s infinite desire of new forms and obsession of finitude, body, suffering and death, the reactionary combination which aspires not to reflect the reality of the ideology in the form of subjective experience but aims to reproduce the ideology itself. In “Slumdog Millionaire”, as I understand from the reviews, this artistic tendency reveals itself as the reproduction of the gaze of Western capitalist democracy proud of its tolerance and formal freedoms which posits itself as the ultimate alternative of the authoritarian corruption of Eastern capitalism.

    Comment by Mehmet Çagatay — February 25, 2009 @ 11:24 am

  9. All three reviews you cite seem to be about what the movie isn’t, rather than engage it on what it does portray. Of course it’s flawed in its depiction of the realities of Mumbai, but than this wasn’t its goal…

    Comment by Martin Wisse — February 25, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

  10. Another chapter from Dickens: Slumdog Millionaire child stars given free homes by Mumbai government. See:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/feb/25/slumdog-millionaire-child-stars-homes

    Comment by jp — February 25, 2009 @ 3:30 pm

  11. I loved this film. For some reason I find that the diaspora loves it more than Indians living in India. What I enjoyed most was that it was free of the West. There was no white male character explaining things to the viewer, or patronizing the locals.

    Here’s my take on it: http://alkakothari.com/2009/02/24/what-kind-of-millionaire-are-you/

    Comment by cinderalka — February 25, 2009 @ 6:17 pm

  12. I’m surprised that no one has commented on Mike Davis’ take on slums from his excellent book, ‘Planet of Slums’.

    Comment by Paul — February 26, 2009 @ 2:49 am

  13. I’m surprised that no one has commented on Mike Davis’ take on slums from his excellent book, ‘Planet of Slums’. Chapter on ‘Illusions of self-help’ directly mentions Dharavi…

    Comment by Paul — February 26, 2009 @ 2:50 am

  14. I think your original review was fine.

    It’s only a movie.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — February 26, 2009 @ 7:43 am

  15. I must say that the movie is really different from others.Even the script was so meticulously written and well attatched with the main srory.I likes the concept of mixing “story” and “real life”.I love every actors’ performances and also appreciated how the kids acted too naturally.My average rating would be 4.5/5.If opportunity I will watch it again!

    Comment by Joe Barry — February 26, 2009 @ 3:59 pm

  16. […] Posted by Bhaskar Sunkara on 3/02/09 • Categorized as Culture, Exogenous Views Published by the always indomitable and only occasionally cranky Louis Proyect in his blog […]

    Pingback by A Second Look at “Slumdog Millionaire” | The Activist — March 3, 2009 @ 3:51 am

  17. After reading a number of left wing review of Slumdog Millionaire, its best if the left either leaves its ideological views at the door, or not bother to submit reviews. Their concern for the poor and underpriviliged is nice, but all i read is humorless rancour over what is ultimately a celebration of unswerving devotion! (Hence the Jai Ho song at the end)

    The left intellectuals would do better to act rather than witer splenetic reviews: or would they prefer we all sovietise the arts!

    Smile Pinki, shows what people(not intellectuals) can do for the unfortunate.

    Comment by brian — March 15, 2009 @ 11:10 pm

  18. ‘My main point in writing the post to which Louis generously refers was a personal one. I just can’t imagine how one watches realistic scenes of child mutilation and prostitution, and then feels good – even should every last June Taylor dancer be dug up and turned loose at the finish’

    so how do you get thru your day? when you know full well terrible things are happing each and every day!

    Life is like that: good and bad, joy and sorrow alternate.

    Surely you learnt a little from Slumdog! The sorrows of Jamal, and how he does not let them destroy him.

    Nietszsche: ‘we have art so we will not die of the truth’.

    Comment by brian — March 15, 2009 @ 11:20 pm

  19. a second look at some reviews:

    ‘In the end, Slumdog presents a profoundly dehumanizing view of the poor, with all its troubling political implications.’

    Really? When the film shows the capacity and intelligence of the two boys? The fact that a boy from the slums does so well on the show, irritaes everyone (apparently even left wing critics, who wish theyd launch a rebellion!)

    What we see is the dehumanising effect of wealth (the Prem character) on those who have forgotten how to love.

    Comment by brian — March 15, 2009 @ 11:25 pm

  20. a lesson for left wing intellectuals from Pinki:

    ‘Pinki wants to see more smiles
    Baithey baithey hi Amrika pahunch gaye! (We didn’t have to move a bit and we reached America).” That’s how Pinki Sonkar reacted when she landed in the US after her first aeroplane trip.
    From a miserable life as a child with a cleft lip, ostracised by society in her remote UP village, Pinki reached glittering Kodak Theater in Los Angeles last Sunday and finished the evening holding a golden statuette. It has been a remarkable journey, but the child, whose transformation has been documented in the Oscar-winning Smile Pinki by Megan Mylan, knew none of the famous people swirling around her on the red carpet. It was the flashbulbs that caught her fancy, Pinki says in Bhojpuri, speaking to HT City on a visit to Delhi on Friday, accompanied by her father and plastic surgeon Dr Subodh Kumar Singh.
    Earlier on Friday, she met the PM’s wife and received some gifts, including a watch she is very proud of.
    Feels good
    Asked about her new life and the storm of attention, she gives a big smile and the thumbs up sign. “She was scared at first, but is comfortable now,” Dr Singh tells us. At the Oscars, she was stopped and congratulated by many, and the Indian cast of Slumdog Millionaire went to meet her at her LA hotel. Inside the Kodak Theater, she fell asleep! She was still sleeping when the Oscar was announced, and saw the prize only the next morning.
    For now, Pinki is happy with this trip. “We could go because of Smile [Train],” she says. The best part of it? “Oscar!” she says shyly. She would love to return to the red carpet, but it’s home she wants right now.
    “I showed her Beverly Hills homes and asked her if she wanted to live there, but she said ‘No, I want to go to my new home in the village,’” recounts Dr Singh, referring to the new home the UP government has made for her and her family. There, Pinki plans to study hard with one ambition in mind: to be a doctor who corrects other children’s lips. It’s a happy ending like no other.
    http://www.hindustantimes.com/StoryPage/Print.aspx?Id=6b165370-3ad7-4e4c-be3a-2d33ea25f891

    Comment by brian — March 15, 2009 @ 11:33 pm

  21. another misreading:

    ‘”Slumdog” invites comparisons to the works of Charles Dickens. Like that author, the film has placed a sympathetic hero into the midst of a powerfully observed if shameful context. That he may escape his fate to pursue his destiny by answering a question on a goofy show is tricky.

    Still, we sit on the edge of our seats like the movie’s citizens, gathered in restaurants and crowded outside electronics stores, to cheer Jamal on.

    We know it’s complicated. Popular cultural fantasies are. Yet we believe his triumph might surely be ours. ‘
    http://www.denverpost.com/entertainment_old/ci_11026343

    Well, no! he goes on the show because he knows (and we should know) Latika watches it! had she watched Big Brother hed have gone on that!

    Thruout there is irony over how people think Jamal is on the show to win money, and so they cheer him on because he is a boy form the slums. Jamal is contrasted with Prem, who we learn is the sort of character Sengupta is angry at: a self-seeking escapee.

    Comment by brian — March 16, 2009 @ 12:01 am

  22. >>I didn’t watch the movie and probably I will not as its “realism” seems too much for my tastes. Concerning realism, the movie’s realistic representation of the Mumbai slums, I think we shouldn’t confuse “Dickensian” plain realism with magical realism of, for instance, Garcia Marquez, whose works would offer a better comparison to “Slumdog Millionaire”.<<

    One could enhance ‘plain realism’ by going the routes of naturalism or symbolism. As for a contrast between ‘plain’ and ‘magical’, I guess we might consider when ‘magical’ realism came about as a genre or type of realism. However, I’ve never thought of Dickens as being a plain realist–and his novels still sell today largely because they are read for their grotesque, comical, even phantasmagorical effects (and that a 21st century ‘understanding’ of his England is largely based on a fantasy).

    So was Dickens some sort of anticipation of magical realism? At any rate, probably doesn’t have much to do with the film being discussed here but…

    Comment by Charles Jannuzi — March 28, 2009 @ 3:20 am

  23. […] Millionaire””, Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist Blog (24 February). Viewed on 7 May 2009 (https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2009/02/24/a-second-look-at-slumdog-millionaire/) Rushdie, Salman (2009): “A Fine Pickle”, The Guardian 28 Feb: 2 Samaddar, Ranabir (2009): […]

    Pingback by UrbanAspirationsblog — March 4, 2013 @ 10:53 am


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