Slum-lord aesthetics and the question of Indian poverty

- Nandini Chandra

Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (based on Indian diplomat Vikas Swaroop’s novel Q&A) takes the extremely potent idea of a Bombay slum boy tapping into his street knowledge to win a twenty million dollar reality quiz show and turns it into a universal tale of love and human destiny. In the quiz, Jamal is unable to answer questions that test his nationalist knowledge but is surprisingly comfortable with those that mark his familiarity with international trivia. For instance, while he knows that Benjamin Franklin adorns a 100 dollar bill, he has no clue about who adorns the 1000 rupee note. This is obviously meant to suggest the irrelevance of the nation to its most marginalized member but less obviously also indicates its supposed redundancy in a globalized neo-liberal setup.  
The film is on an awards-winning roll, having won four Golden globes, seven Baftas, plus a couple others, it is a confirmed winner at the Oscars this year, something that surely adds rather than subtracts from its imperial charm. The centrality of the neo-gothic structure of the Victoria Terminus as the transformative point in the film thus heralds a Dickensian aura as much as an imperial vision. Boyle had promised the studio bosses a film in English in tandem with the one-world logic, surely. Loveleen Tandan, the co-director took her role as cover-up officer for cultural gaffes seriously enough to push for the little boys from the Nehru Nagar slum speaking Hindi not English. The film has sparked a fierce nationalist campaign among Britishers who feel that it could have been only made by a Briton. Hollywood wouldn’t have touched a film using a Muslim lead with a barge pole.
In contrast, Indians cannot quite see it in nationalist terms. For one, Amitabh Bachchan’s blog has officially announced and sanctioned the hurt pride of nationalist Indians occasioned by the film’s exposure of its dirty underbelly. While one is unsympathetic to the chauvinist argument that outsiders have no right to depict the seamier side of native life; the way this hyper-nationalist sentiment has been refracted in the international press says something about the film’s motivations. For instance, most reports translate Bachchan’s statement as the Indian peoples’ inability to take a brutal look at themselves, assuming both that the so called west has a hotline with the underclass, and that Bachchan represents ‘the Indian people’.  
Given this intermeshing of an Indian and global context surrounding the film’s production and reception, it becomes pertinent to frame the question of the specific nature of Indian poverty raised in the film. The film is hardly unique in addressing the spectacle of the Bombay poor, their dismal conditions of living and defecating. But what it does crystallize in very concrete terms is a general consensus achieved in recent years on the disengagement of labour from questions of poverty and wealth. Partha Chatterjee’s much talked about essay, Democracy and Economic Transformation (EPW, 19 April 2008), mobilizes the concept of a “political society” to merge the realm of peasant detritus and urban poor with petty-entrepreneurs as well as the more shadowy criminal class. His argument reads something like this: since this informal and irregular community has not been and cannot be integrated into the corporate-style capitalist structures, they not only lose out on the benefits of civil society, their only salvation lies in being appropriated by governmental structures and schemes. The idea therefore is to translate the poor’s lack of proletarian consciousness as an automatic admission into political-governmental terms without adequately addressing either the question of capital accumulation by forcible dispossession, through the judicious use of that very government’s repressive instruments in the first place or how to usefully channel this dispossessed labour surplus in a direction that will precipitate class struggle.   
While the film in its neo-liberal optimism contradicts this understanding of the poor, seeing them as immediately appropriable within the interstices of corporatized service industries, it participates in the denial of the potential usefulness of the work they do and its lack of reward. However, like Chatterjee, it also insists on placing them outside the purview of the juridical civil state, where law and order do not prevail in the same familiar way, thus surrounding their lives with a mystique that films like Boyle’s can successfully unravel for a neo-liberal audience. Having been endowed with humanity and dignity, the poor cannot be seen through what is perceived as instrumental categories of labour or class anymore. They are instead seen as denizens of a shadowy, illicit realm which can be made comprehensible only by integrating it within certain humanist tropes like love and freedom. It is remarkable that the topography of the places in which the poor live is seen largely through aerial shots ? mountains of garbage, huge green forests of wasteland, rivers of faeces ? and the little boys jumping back and forth through this panoramic natural landscape acquire the characteristic of blooming lotuses in mud. The goo scene in the beginning and the scene where a massive bogeyman-type figure gouges out the eyes of little children with a spoon are of course tightly framed to render the horror of the other world, which may be packaged for a poverty tour (like the one where Shantaram took Angelina Jolie by the hand and led her through the giddy lanes of Dharavi). The slum, the common tank where the mother was felled by one swoop of the Hindu fundamentalist sword, the brothel, the child labourer, the exploitative policemen, the curious school master in a dhoti and the mafia bosses are all stops on this guided tour which is only superficially different from the commodification of poverty one finds on the sets of more popular Bollywood fare. In fact, the new Bollywood aesthetics find an echo here in its severe eschewal of the institutions of state and civil society. But while Bollywood is equally welcoming of foreign capital, a non-Bollywood production like Slumdog takes on more immediately imperialist overtones. This is because the impetus of its rhetoric of good will and benevolence strives to conceal the conditions of its production, encapsulated by a patchy realism which seems to suggest that its real commitment is to the true heart of India, rather than a Bollywood imaginary which it uses merely as the scaffolding for its conventional plot’s unfolding.
The direct connectivity with an international public via tourism, call centres, media and other service industry networks makes the proximity to foreign capital extremely clear. The absence of an organized labour force or any political platform makes it possible to render the terms offered by this capital free of any vested interest.  For instance, the film is produced by Celador Films, the very company which originally created the “Who wants to be a Millionaire” contest, an idea never once mocked throughout the film. In fact, reality television with big money in rewards encourages the contestants to alternatively think of themselves as obligated to the jury and managers and entitled to earn or deserve the disproportionately large sums of money. At the same time, the ruthlessness with which the contestants are evicted draws brief attention to the bosses’ less than benign status as business entrepreneurs, only to deflect it to a professional ethic, which seeks to dignify its lottery or gambling mode. The dynamics of reality television get enacted when little Jamal is being propped up to be a singer by the beggar kingpin Mamman, and the little fellow really thinks his time has come. In true reality television fashion, he demands a fifty rupee note from him before he sings his piece, announcing that he is after all a professional. 
The extension of the professional ethic to these service sectors makes even the informal contractual labour conditions of chaiwallahs seem like a welcome novelty. The hotel kitchen seems like a refuge of freedom for the canny child waiter, who gets plenty of time off even as Salim complains of the utopian life they have left behind thieving tyres in the by-lanes of Agra. The tourist industry seems like a utopia of cast-offs and gullible ‘whities’ waiting to be ripped off by these wily self-appointed guides. In short, the film tries to show that for those who can think on their feet, access to wealth is not a problem. Child labour is not really seen as exploitative, but as enabling the education of these young adults. In fact, hardly do we perceive their contribution in terms of real labour. They are seen as gaining rather than giving to the system, sabotaging, picking up the leftovers, staying in empty hotel rooms, stealing from it. Their labour is forever in the background. What is in the foreground is the readymade wealth they are continually grabbing. Wealth is seen not as something created by labour but as already always there to be accessed like the 20 million to be won for the answering of 10 odd questions, a clear repudiation of the true dynamics of labour and class. Moreover, by making the state and civil society evaporate, the film is interested in showing that real harmony is ultimately produced by a direct interaction between capital and labour, in a context where capital will always be benefiting labour and not the other way round. This is probably an acknowledgement of the fact that under the present phase of free market enterprise, the state has proven itself such a good accomplice of capital that it need not even be reckoned with. The police, initially evil, are eventually reconciled to the market’s impartial dynamics when the Inspector comes round to Jamal’s story and escorts him to the media room.  
The upper class body language of its avowedly slum-dwelling protagonists is a serious lapse in realism, as is the characterization of Anil Kapoor treating the slumdweller in an exaggeratedly condescending fashion. The use of English could have been justified by a simple suggestion that the boys picked it up from the streets of Agra or even the call centre. But what sucks most is the fact that while they make an attempt to imbue the film with a self-consciously heroic Muslim profile, they overwrite it with a totally Hindu concept of destiny. Ironically, even the credit song jai-ho seems to suggest an orchestrated mass- pilgrimage to Vaishno-devi rather than the triumph of the Muslim underdog.