Is Slumdog Millionaire Poverty Porn?

On /Film, we’ve promoted Slumdog Millionaire fairly relentlessly (in my review, I lauded it as my favorite film of 2008). Apparently, the Hollywood Foreign Press and the AMPAS are in accord with our opinion on the film, awarding four Golden Globes and a slew of Academy Award nominations, respectively. But with all the press and positive attention the film has been getting, some critics are accusing the film of exploiting western perceptions of India, with its depictions of impoverished slums ruled by gangsters, as well as other unwholesome characters. One of the definitions of pornography, according to Merriam Webster, is as follows: “The depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction.” In most circumstances, this type of pornography is both unwholesome for the viewer and unflattering for its creator.

So, is Slumdog Millionaire poverty porn?

The Mumbai-based dnaindia.com weighed in with an oft-cited editorial that celebrated the success of the film as “reaffirm[ing] the wealth of talent available here.” [Despite the fact that the film isn't directed or produced by Indians, director Danny Boyle seems to have insulated himself from a great deal of criticism by shooting the film in Mumbai, choosing Indian actors (and actors of Indian descent), as well as having a significant portion of the dialogue in Hindi.] Nonetheless, the newspaper goes on to point out how Slumdog Millioniaire’s depiction of poverty both clashes with previous images of India in popular culture and appeals to Western stereotypes. The editorial reads:

[I]t is undoubtedly the [film's] setting — the wretched slums of Mumbai, from where the protagonist emerges to win a television quiz show — that has caught the imagination of audiences. The miserable existence of the average slum dweller, which we in India know so well, is novel to the western viewer. It has not gone unnoticed among reviewers in the western media that these awful images — gangsters, communal tensions and hovels that pass for homes — are a distant cry from the India Shining that has been projected so often in the last few years. Indeed, the awarding of the Booker prize to the novel The White Tiger shows that the seamier side of the Indian dream continues to have a resonance in western sensibilities. The White Tiger’s victory left many Indians underwhelmed; who is to say that when Indian audiences finally see Slumdog they will not be equally put off?

The LATimes writes similarly in its article, Indians Don’t Feel Good About ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’ The Times quotes from interviews with a variety of cultural commentators, including Shyamal Sengupta, a Mumbai film professor who opines, “It’s a white man’s imagined India…It’s not quite snake charmers, but it’s close. It’s a poverty tour.”

Still, others point out that the criticisms of the film may reveal more about the critics than the film: Despite its explosive growth on the global stage, India (like many developed nations) still struggles with poverty and the camera’s eye in Slumdog certainly doesn’t shy away from this fact. According to Indian film expert Rochona Majumdar, “A lot of people felt it was bashing India, but I disagree…We’re too quick to celebrate ‘Incredible India’…But there is an underbelly. To say we don’t have problems is absurd.”

Despite these critiques, many are upbeat on the film’s financial prospects in India, with director Shekhar Kapur saying that “what’s most important is that Slumdog is the most successful Indian film ever.” Even Sengupta believes that Indians will see the film to see how they are viewed by Westerners. “There is still a fascination with seeing how we are perceived by white Westerners,” said Sengupta. “It’s a kind of voyeurism.”

Over at The Times, Alice Miles has come out with a stinging screed against Slumdog, calling it “vile,” and “brilliant, horrifying, compelling, and awful.” Miles even directs her criticism at the audience for enjoying the film. She writes:

[I]f Boyle may be absolved from criticism, I am not sure the same can be said of the audience. “Slumderful!” declared the New York Post. When we are suckered into enjoying scenes of absolute horror among children in slums on the other side of the world, even dubbing them comedy, we ought to question where our moral compass is pointing. Boyle’s most subversive achievement may lie not in revealing the dark underbelly of India – but in revealing ours.

For his part, Danny Boyle has responded to many of these criticisms by stating the following:

The thing that I wanted people to take away from the film was … this breathtaking, breathtaking resilience of people and the joy of people despite their circumstances — that lust for life…What we tried to do in the film was include as much of the city as possible.

There are a couple of elements that bear teasing out here. The first is the notion that Slumdog’s depiction of violence against children is somehow exploitative, and that our “enjoyment” of a film with these elements somehow says something about us as viewers. I think this is a somewhat valid critique, insofar as any film uses violence to titillate and enthrall its audience. However I don’t find Slumdog’s use of violence any more disasteful than what we see in the majority of blockbusters coming out of Hollywood studios these days (and unlike some of those films, Slumdog is not marketed towards children).

Where things get complicated is in the film’s depiction of a rags-to-riches story that happens to be set in India, a locale that has its own rich culture, but also a history of very specific types of portrayals in American pop culture. Slumdog, the critics seem to be saying, propogates a sensationalistic, stereotypical, and inaccurate depiction of India that lowers that country’s stature in the eyes of the world. Again, my perspective on this is that this film does the same thing that any artistic work accomplishes while using its setting to great effect.

Take David Simon’s The Wire, which renders Baltimore, MD as an ultra-violent gang-ridden city with an incompetent and dysfunctional law enforcement apparatus. So pervasive was this image of popular culture that the city reportedly spent millions in a campaign to boost its tourism. Yet, while Simon told one side of the story, he told it effectively and in a way that was thought-provoking. The Wire spawned more awareness of the systemic problems that haunt U.S. cities like Baltimore. It might not have been a fair or even-handed depiction, but sometimes works of art only achieve greatness by taking on strong positions and painting with a vivid, broad brush. [And of course, while it's a warmed over observation at this point, The Wire is generally regarded as a modern masterpiece.]

Only time will tell whether the film does any lasting, significant, or consequential damage to America’s perception of India. On that matter, I must remain completely agnostic.

Discuss: Is Slumdog Millionaire poverty porn? Is it exploitative? Does its use of violence and poverty border, or venture into, the realm of the distasteful?

A big thanks to film podcast listener Fernando for prompting this article. Here are a couple of other articles readers may find relevant to the subject:

You can reach David Chen by e-mail at davechensemail(at)gmail.com. You can also follow him on Tumblr or Twitter.

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