[25 February 2009]
On the eve of this year’s Oscars, Aakar Patel’s ridiculous article appeared in the Sunday edition of the Wall Street Journal’s India’s version, Mint. “Why Slumdog Millionaire is Unbelievable” came out in Saturday 21, February’s Mint Lounge section, and basically said that Slumdog was far-fetched because poor people don’t have “dignity,” that dignity is an “intellectual” pursuit, and “the poor” aren’t interested in learning. The man even wrote, “those who have spoken to the poor will notice the glaze over their eyes. There is no curiosity in the nature of the world, because it has already revealed itself to them in full.” Well, the kids under the flyover near my house are high, many sniffing something as simple as everyday glue, which would explain the glazed over look. Mr. Patel goes on to say that “we” cannot afford to have compassion for poverty and “the poor” because “it would be intolerable for us to live, surrounded by such sorrow.”
A few things here: First, poverty does not exclude people from experiencing happiness, or even cultivating “dignity,” for that matter. Secondly, not all privileged people find compassion intolerable. Third of all, I am generally suspicious when writers are too presumptuous to unpack “we,” which usually leads me to think even more critically about how it is used. There is no “we” when Mr. Patel says: “The poor are rejected in India for their condition.” Well, do “we” reject them? He then says, “It is an existence of eternal reaction. Constant hunger and helplessness.” Are “the poor” reacting to us? Have “we” starved them or somehow exploited them in ways so morally indefensible? Moreover, have “we” perpetrated “incident upon humiliating incident,” against the so-called helpless poor? Have “we” done this? Has our lack of compassion lead to mainstream trashing of Slumdog, with the only benefit that “we” can now use “slumdog” in mixed, polite, politically correct company?
It is true that “we” were the bad people in the film. We were the schoolteachers that beat kids over the head. We were the mute-witnessed that stood by while mobs slaughtered communities, while authorities stood by. We rolled up our car windows when beggars approached at intersections. We were the game-show host, taking each and every chance to humiliate the “slumdog”, a word said repeatedly like a hissing snake. We were commuters on the train watching a group of goons assault a young girl, grabbing her by her hair and dragging her into a car. We were the citizens who tolerate torture by water-boarding and electrocution. We did not even see “the poor” as people. Indeed, Slumdog was hard for us to watch.
Alternatively, we might dare to base our actions-whatever they may be- on compassion and recognizing that everyone has the right and potential for dignity. The Dalai Lama says, “Everything interdependent, interconnected. If you harm others, you get suffering. If you help others, you get benefit.” It is my own lack of humanity that blinds me from seeing the dignity in any other, and that causes suffering.
The Mint article makes some pretty shady analogies that “we” relatively privileged people often employ to speak about those who have less than we do. We use these excuses to convince ourselves that we deserve what we have, as if by birthright. Patel continues: “The single most important fact of poverty is the loss of dignity in the individual. The Indian knows this. The poor are actually second-rate human beings. Their existence is like that of animals: Their concerns are all immediate because that is the only level at which life engages them.” I disagree. I think that lacking compassion is a greater loss of dignity. This loss of dignity allows us to characterize others as “second-rate,” which justifies why “we” treat them as we do. It is really a lack of compassion for the self, however, that allows us to believe that sheer compassion makes life intolerable. Perhaps Danny Boyle believes that even in India, compassion cultivates tolerance.
Popularity and Appropriation
Following the eight trophy triumph of Slumdog Millionaire, it is important to establish tools for critical introspection now, before the wave of appropriated images flushes the so-called free market. Like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song ushered in a wave of cultural retaliation, so too might the popularity of Slumdog lead to more cultural appropriation, lest we start with respect for diversity in the compassionate, salad-bowl sense.
An entire genre of film resulted in the 70’s in response to demands and petite advances in empowered representation of Blacks in mainstream films. Blaxploitation as a genre spawned from MGM Film Studio’s appropriation of Black filmmakers’ leading characters in works written and produced by African-Americans such as Melvin Van Peebles. In fact, in 1970 Peebles wrote, produced and directed two feature films: Watermelon Man and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song. Peebles starred in the latter, in which his son Mario also made his child-acting debut. The crust of it is that Van Peebles’ main protagonist had a personal vendetta against racialized oppression and (white) supremacy. Taking plugs at ‘the man’ turned out to be a major undertone of Van Peebles’ films. His films typically depict the rage of Black heroes against ‘the man’ (read: Establishment), particularly as this is articulated through racism and classism. Barring how narrowly gender is represented, like Sweetback, Slumdog uniquely centers upon non-elites, from a non-elite perspective. In both cases, all of the elite folks in the film were villains, including folks like me in the case of Slumdog; I simply roll up the windshield each time I pass under the flyover near my house where plenty of street children hustle and reside.
Slumdog made no focus of the elite, or Aakar Patel’s presumptuous “we.” Rather, the film critiqued systematic oppression and chronic poverty by its own virtue. Again, Slumdog portrayed us with great clarity as mute-witnesses to all sorts of oppression and exploitation happening in the so-called under-bellies of every urban space on this planet to one degree or another. This is even the critique of the Batman franchise, especially The Dark Knight and Batman Begins. Understandably, critiquing bourgeois society is met with bourgeois retaliation like Mr. Patel’s remarks perpetuating the “myth of meritocracy”. Unlike comic book superheroes, Slumdog hit a bit closer under our bellies with our eyes wide shut. Yet, now that “we” have had our eyes opened, will “we” place Third World poverty into another, more entertaining box?
Will we see a slew of “Third World” exploitation films, forgetting that ‘third’ in this instance means ‘non-aligned’ and not ‘less than’. Getting back to Slumdog, “third” as it pertains to “Third World” certainly does not mean “second-rate human beings.” That perspective gives way to charity, like the actor who played the game-show host donating his earnings from Slumdog to “the poor.” While worthwhile, charity is incomplete, for money is not the only answer. Moreover, charity has more to do with the giver than the receiver. Despite any temporary rapture money may impart, its effect tends not to endure.
Charity strokes First World egos (and perhaps ambitions of Mint’s readership), justifying our own power, privilege and wealth, as well as “their” oppression. “Without changing structures of domination, we leave in place the culture of lovelessness,” says radical feminist bell hooks. A very real ideological commitment towards domination reproduces and aptly reflects oppression in popular culture, which in the modern day means consumption. Colluding with this culture of domination, for example, Black actors are lured by Hollywood’s money to play minstrel-like, Magic Negro characters, sealing their own oppression. In this new millennium, will “we” break or perpetuate this cycle lovelessness? On the other hand, “love,” says bell hooks, “is especially available to is because it is a non-market value.”