There’s a huge modern urban mythology because of the global mainstreaming of misinformation about India and its cultures, where Indian poor are mere abstractions that follows a nuanced approach to their treatment in cinema. We try to catch the continuing discourse where poverty in India is an intended cinematic visibility at the global cinema, which merely looks like some sharply observed tourism. The observed contrasts in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and Mira Nair’s first feature film, Salaam Bombay (1988) have been used to elaborate the stereotypical representations created by the western privileged eye, which needs to be displaced.
Boyle’s Slumdog appears to have been indented essentially for westernized audiences in the global mainstream including the elite Indian ones. It broadens an already set outsider’s portrayal of India’s social woes which is continuously fixating on poverty in India. Poverty is the only cinematic visibility. An intended cinematic visibility at times. Actual names and faces are put on poverty. And those faces never see the profits that are being gained out of them. Such cinema does not seem to actually be kind to the minorities or the poor. Only mendacious stereotypical representations are created about specifically the non-western people. How is the problem of representation to be tackled when one is represented by the ‘other’.Slumdog Millionaire was called “Breakthrough for the West”! For the West that either knows very little or just nothing about the subjects the film dealt with.
Very recently, we see a number of foreign media referring to Irrfan Khan merely as the “Slumdog Millionaire actor” on his demise! Not just that, an American Indian-origin actor working in the States was called out as “Slumdog” in an award evening! Because here is created an ‘Imaginary Community’ which is so different from the variety that exists with different communities altogether having varied ethnicity, cultures, sexuality, social and economic class, to name a few.
In fact, in Slumdog, poverty is very straightforwardly or say plainly depicted which spreads in throughout whereas in some very rare films poverty is truthfully shown a byproduct of the social or religious structures around us like in the film, Water, a byproduct of Hinduism, as for the widowed protagonist. Therefore, the real problem is dealt with. And, such portrayal lacks in films like Slumdog where the poor are, at the end shown morally well off than the rich like they still carry with them the so-called “life”, and are no matter having fun and best of all the worlds. They wouldn’t offer the cause that led to this poverty. Rather would suggest that if lucky enough you may come out of it by winning twenty million on some “Who wants to be a Millionaire”! India being one such huge country with this variedness, poverty too is complicated, way more than what the film makes it look like. Poverty doesn’t just come out of some vacuum.
Such thought of cultural imperialism has also prevailed in the popular Indian cinema of the 70s, for example in the cult film Deewar(1975), poverty is portrayed as shame and humiliation. Here, the progress of the hero is highlighted but not at the cost. The cost of dishonoring. The hero later acquires the riches and the preceding poverty simply acts as some stigmatized reference point, where one can just sit and dream of the fantasy spaces of the glittering prosperity. And, if you’re some hero in the face of Amitabh Bachchan, you may end up magically acquiring all the riches. Films in India play a huge role in shaping the collective morality of the people, setting up a public culture from time to time.
A majority of international films based here, are mostly in English and somehow fail to represent the real. Many times, a film carries poverty as a narrative backdrop where the focus was to be on themes like love trumping money, like was in Slumdog Millionaire, the Danny Boyle 2008 film. We know that no discussion of ‘poverty depiction in world cinema’ seems complete without mentioning it. It’s primarily after this film that Dharavi slum tours exist for real carrying with them different packages and discounts for the same! Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia, surprisingly has beaten Taj Mahal, becoming the most popular tourist destination in India to foreign tourists in 2019. “These tours aim to dispel off notions that people have of Dharavi being a pace of distress, whereas the people there are inspiring capable of achieving through hardships and adverse conditions.” Now all because the slum dwellers aren’t visibly depressed, the rich would go sanitizing the narrow alleyways of Dharavi, feel all uplifted, and encouraged before they return to their huge mansions!
Most of the actors who appeared in Salaam Bombay (1988) were actual street children. Their lives had been no less complicated than of the characters they were to play. The director had them explaining themselves. This film unlike the others of its kind treats the subject of poverty in an honest way. It captures the truth, the entire film being shot on location, where most of the crew had never been on a film set before. Nair’s crew t-shirts said, “No guts. No glory/ 52 locations, 52 days/ What problem? No problem.”
A whole lot of talks about the streets, brothels, railway platforms, experiences, drugs, red-lights, madmen, madness happened and from this emerged the screenplay. “They’ve fed my film throughout.”, says Nair. Every frame of Salaam Bombay carries vulnerability with itself. Some of the films comfort you, some don’t.
Mira Nair weaves cross-cultural films, dwelling on conflicting ideologies, socio-cultural-economic issues, identity crises to name a few. It doesn’t look like one dominated by the power centers, instead, the films are clear-eyed, the most affecting accounts of the marginalized. Along with the most intimate cinematography with those handheld cameras, where craftsmanship doesn’t seem to be discouraged. “Life is short and you must use your time to speak what you want to say. I believe if we don’t tell our own story, no one ever will.”