Depictions of Indian Poverty in World Cinema

Very often, we deal with the poor as abstractions. We lump them all together as statistics, and plan solutions to raise those numbers. This is dehumanizing for the actual people whom those statistics represent. At their best, these statistics provide common ground for aid workers to debate and forecast the results of their work. At worst, “we give ourselves permission to play god in the lives of the poor,” because we fail to view them as fully formed people created by God, as Bryant Myers states in his excellent book.

Viewing world cinema provides a corrective to this danger. Films feature characters, and so films put actual names and faces on poverty. Though often fictional, the audience knows the stories are based on the real world, and so the audience is encouraged to accept a more nuanced impression of the poor. Through world cinema, audiences are granted a deeper appreciation of the complex challenges facing poor people in diverse contexts around the world.

Slumdog Millionaire

As I’ve talked with people about the topic of depictions of poverty in world cinema, without fail, every person says something to the effect of, “Oh! Like Slumdog Millionaire.” It seems no discussion of poverty depictions in world cinema is complete without looking at Slumdog.

Arguably, no film in the past ten years dealing explicitly with poverty has garnered as much critical and popular acclaim as Slumdog Millionaire. The film was the recipient of 104 world cinema awards including the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards for Best Adapted Screenplay (Simon Beaufoy), Best Direction (Danny Boyle), and Best Picture, the Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay (Beaufoy), Best Achievement in Directing (Boyle), and world cinema’s top honor, the 2009 Academy Award for Best Picture. The film also earned $377,910,544 worldwide, making it one of the highest grossing films of its year of release. In popular culture since 2009, “depictions of poverty in film” essentially means “Slumdog Millionaire.”

Slumdog Millionaire is the story of Jamal, a young Muslim man who finds himself in the contestant’s chair on the Indian version of the popular game show “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” As the film opens, police officers are torturing him and accusing him of cheating on the show. It is known that he is from the Mumbai slums (a “slumdog”), and is therefore thought incapable of knowing the answers to the game show’s difficult questions. Through a series of flashbacks, the film’s audience learns that Jamal’s particular life experiences inexplicably prepared him for the exact questions he is asked on the show. The flashbacks also detail the poverty of his youth, how he, his brother, and the woman he loves rose out of that poverty, and the complicated relationship between the three young people.

The film’s ethnicity is complicated. It is not purely an Indian film. The film’s director, Danny Boyle, is British, and the film’s star, Dev Patel, is ethnically Indian but born and raised in England. The film is mostly in English, and its characters are not representative of Indian society – they are Muslim, and 80.5% of India is Hindu (Government of India, Ministry of Home Affairs). Slumdog was filmed in India in Mumbai and Agra, and the Indian casting director, Loveleen Tandan, was given a director’s credit for her work in finding and hiring the Indian members of the cast, but the rest of the “above the line,” or principal crew, is British. A novel by an Indian man, Vikas Swarup, inspired the film, but British writer Simon Beaufoy penned the screenplay. The film has received criticism both in India and abroad because of its mixed ethnicity, and the film was even protested against by slum dwellers in India when it was released there (Singh 2009). At best, I think one can call Slumdog Millionaire a British film about India, and given the nation’s colonial history, that brings in a whole host of concerns which I do not have space to address here. Instead, I’m going to focus on the narrative itself and not the complicated “why” of the narrative’s “what.” Given Slumdog Millionaire‘s dominance in the global cinema audience’s mind about poverty, it makes a good base against which to compare other films.

To begin, Slumdog Millionaire isn’t about poverty. It is a love story. It simply uses poverty as a narrative backdrop against which to highlight the preeminence of love. “Love trumps money” is the moral of this modern fairy tale in which Fate takes the place of magic, and our hero completes his ordained task of answering game show questions for which his life’s struggles have prepared him.

The film contrast Jamal and and his brother Salim’s motivations throughout the film. Jamal does all he does for love. He is trying to find Latika, a girl he met years ago, and win her heart. He got on the game show in the first place because he knew Latika watched it and hoped she would see him on the show and reconnect. Salim is motivated by money. He wants wealth at the expense of every other relationship in his life. He sells the autograph Jamal braved excrement to obtain, he leads other children in to be maimed by the abducting gangster, he abandons Latika lest she cause them to be recaptured, he kills rival gangsters to make a name for himself, and he recaptures Latika for his boss when Latika tries to run away with Jamal. Jamal’s journey is to consistently choose love over money. Salim’s journey is to learn to do the same. In the end, upon learning that Latika is safe, Jamal randomly guesses on the game show’s final question, unconcerned about whether he leaves the contestant’s chair rich or poor. Simultaneously, Salim dies symbolically in a bathtub full of cash after being gunned down by his crime lord boss for helping Latika to escape, having finally learned to choose people over wealth. The message of the movie is clear – in view of love, money does not matter at all.

Slumdog Millionaire, I contend, isn’t a movie about the poor. It is a movie about the wealthy, because only the wealthy can afford to so boldly proclaim that money doesn’t matter. The film uses poverty to make Jamal that much more of an underdog and to give greater weight to Jamal and Salim’s eschewing of wealth in favor of love. The poor are depicted as disgusting (Jamal swims through human waste and picks through garbage), violent (Jamal’s mother is slaughtered by raiding Hindus and Jamal is almost maimed by a crime boss), and prone to crime (begging children work for crime bosses, Jamal and Salim are con artists, and slum children strip down tourists cars). At the same time, the film depicts poverty as colorful (scenes in the slums are bathed in warm, bright colors while scenes in the wealthy crime lord’s home are overexposed and white), lively (the slum dwellers are shown dancing and singing, the editing of these scenes is marked by quick cuts and energetic music, and scenes of wealth are subdued, slow, and without soundtrack), and easily escapable with a little hard work and ingenuity (by the time they are in their early twenties, Jamal and Salim have climbed out of poverty by selling trinkets to and stealing from tourists). Furthermore, Jamal’s impoverished past is the very thing that prepared him to be able to answer the questions on the game show and win the twenty billion rupees. Poverty is a training ground to succeed in life. Taken all together, Slumdog Millionaire presents wealth as a problem, not poverty, and based on the film’s logic, the world would do better to leave the poor alone to live lovingly in their somewhat gross and violent but also colorful, lively, easily escapable, and ultimately happy world.

Water and Peepli [Live]

The purely Indian-made films Water and Peepli [Live] are not as glib about the poverty affecting 42% of India’s rural population and 26% of India’s urban population.

Water was the 2005 submission to the Academy Awards by Canada, and it received a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. It was written and directed by Deepa Mehta, an Indian born and educated filmmaker who has resided in Canada since 1973. Mehta has made a critically acclaimed trilogy of films about her homeland of India, Fire, Earth, and Water, focusing on the various impacts of the Hindu religion on Indian society. The second film in the trilogy, Earth, was India’s official submission to the 2000 Academy Awards. The final film in her trilogy, Water, examines the lives of widows in the Indian city of Varanasi in the 1930s.

Peepli [Live] was India’s 2010 submission to the Academy Awards. It did not receive a nomination. It was also nominated for the Grand Jury Prize in Dramatic World Cinema at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. The film follows two poor farmers who decide to commit suicide in order to receive money from the government with which their surviving family will be able to pay back their loans and keep their land.

As opposed to Slumdog Millionaire, both Water and Peepli [Live] present poverty as a problem in need of solutions. Moreover, while Slumdog Millionaire sets up a sharp good/evil binary between poverty and wealth, Water and Peepli [Live] are more nuanced in their treatment of the poor. In Water and Peepli [Live], the poor are depicted as hungry (neither widow nor farmer has food), destitute (sickness and death persist without check), and desperate (the widows are willing to resort to prostitution, and the farmers are considering suicide), but they are also industrious (both the widows and farmers are able to find small jobs), intelligent (both widows and farmers are good at taking advantage of the religious and political systems), and proud (both widows and farmers would rather die than live as pawns in the ruling classes power struggles). The poor in both films are also selfish and conniving (in Water, Sarala’s father puts her in the widow’s home rather than support her, and the matron of the widow’s home sells Sarala as a prostitute, and in Peepli [Live] one of the brothers tricks the other brother into being the one to commit suicide to save himself), drunkards (the farmers stagger from one day to the next), and hateful (the widows fight with one another and the farmers’ mother constantly berates her sons). In short, India’s poor are complete people, prone to both good and bad, not simplistically characterized like they are in Slumdog Millionaire.

While in Slumdog Millionaire poverty is perpetuated by inaction if by anything at all, in Water and Peepli [Live] very specific things perpetuate poverty, though those things differ in each film. In Water, the widows’ poverty is a byproduct of Hinduism. Once widowed, the women are precluded from either remarrying or from participating in normal society by Hindu custom. The only solution for this problem is revolution, like the one led by Mohandas Karamchand Ghandi. At the end of the film, the young widow Sarala is given to one of Ghandi’s supporters by one of the adult widows, and she begs the man to take Sarala into a better world.

In Peepli [Live], the farmers are kept in poverty by the greedy and inept practices of their government. The farmers are forced to purchase and plant expensive seeds improper for their land because their government officials sign lucrative contracts with American agribusiness companies. When the farmers’ plan to commit suicide is uncovered by the media, a parade of politicians running for office comes through the farmers’ front yard with useless gifts of water pumps (without drilling wells) and televisions (the farmers have no electricity) hoping for a positive public relations moment. Furthermore, in Peepli [Live], the media is also a bane on the poverty-stricken farmers’ existence. The news crews come in to cover the proposed suicide, but they have no real desire to help anyone, and as soon as the story ends, the news crew members leave, and the farmers are no better off. Now, they just have the media’s mess to clean up too. Finally, Peepli [Live] presents no explicit hope of rescue from poverty for the farmers. In the end, the farmer considering suicide abandons his family for the city, and the failing way of life in the rural area continues unabated.

In total, poverty in India in Water and Peepli [Live] is presented as a complicated issue. The poor are shown to be fully formed human beings, and their poverty is perpetuated by the societal structures of religious tradition and government. The only hope for rescue from poverty presented in either film is revolution. Slumdog Millionaire, on the other hand, presents the poor as better off morally than the rich, offers no cause for poverty’s perpetuation, and suggests that the way out of poverty is through hard work, perseverance, and maybe winning twenty million rupees on a game show. Slumdog Millionaire is the film the wealthy West wanted the rest of the world to see about poverty. Water and Peepli [Live] are the ways Indian filmmakers have presented poverty to the world.

India is a vast, complex, and diverse nation. The proposed perpetuators and enders of poverty in India’s films are similarly complex and diverse. The situation is almost certainly more complicated than Slumdog Millionaire makes it out to be, though I suppose that has always been the case when it comes to British interactions with India.