Slumdog as aesthetic
The Oscars have passed us by, leaving us with moments that op-ed writers could possibly only dream up: bollywood dancers on an Oscar stage; two of the three nominees for Best Song being sung in a language nearly the entire audience couldn’t even identify let alone speak; the English-speaking of the bevy of ‘India’s children’ translating the English questions into Marathi for the ‘kid from an actual slum’ in a we’re-all-one-across-the-ocean-moment; and, of course, the most harmonious moment of India-is-England-is-India convergence since the founding of the East India Company. It’s an embarrassment of riches.
So what does any of this have to do with slums? Let me be clear: this is not a tirade against the movie in any way. It actually isn’t about the movie at all. It is though about the one thing that the movie has brought back into our attention but that, somehow, no one actually seems to be talking about – that thing called the slum. Slumdog and the debates, protests, and celebrations around it, in equal measure, seem to beg a question: how do we, as Indians who are not Danny Boyle, think about the slum? How should we? Can Slumdog teach us a trick or two about our own backyards?
What Slumdog made me realize, more than anything else, is how much poverty has left the visual vocabulary of the new India. How distant it is. How unimaginable. How far one apparently has to go to see it or think about it. Put another way, how far so many of us had wittingly and unwittingly gone to not see it and not think about it until we paid a lot of money to see it brightly lit up on screen. How this movie was, for so many that live a ten-minute walk from several slums they could pick from, the first images of life inside a slum that they had seen. How for so many in South Delhi this movie was as foreign as for New Yorkers, and just as exotic, as surprising for its colour and happiness in the midst of obvious deprivation.
I don’t mean here to say that every non-poor resident of an Indian city should go traipsing through a slum. Of course, I do actually think they should and that it would do them a lot of good but I’m a long-time pragmatist in such things so don’t ask for things I can’t get. I do, however, want to use the absurd novelty of these images of slum life for many middle class Indians to say out loud what it is telling us: these images are nowhere else. They are not on our three hundred twenty-four hour news channels, our newspapers, our magazines, and, yes, our more-films-than-anywhere-else-per-year massive Bollywood industry. Our own cities are invisible to us.
There are scarce few images on record showing how thirty thousand households that made up the string of bastis on Yamuna Pushta in Delhi, where our new favourite Indian children traipsing on the Oscar stage might have lived, no longer exist. There are no slumdogs in Nangla Manchi now either. There are no movies about Operation Sunshine in Kolkata where street vendors were summarily thrown out from the streets of the badhralok city, no pictures from the sweeping evictions and demolitions of bastis in Mumbai. All of these evictions took place in the last four years. Since the millennium, the new India has evicted more of the urban poor of our cities than during the Emergency, or during the last twenty years of the 20th century. Have you heard of any of these evictions? Have you seen an image? Do you know why they occurred? Do you know what happened to the homes of actual Jamals, Latikas and Salims in your city? Dare I ask: shouldn’t you? Or is it enough to be happy that a fable of getting out of slum life exists in technicolour? That this fable is technically an excellent piece of film making and editing and script writing and sound mixing?
Yes, the slum can be entertainment. It can be a source of individual people and their lives and not only about their structural exclusion. I worked for a long time in a basti [I don’t use the world slum] or settlement called Bawana. It lies unseen by the readers of this newspaper on the edge of Delhi’s northwestern outer limits, placed there after its residents were evicted from their homes in Yamuna Pushta where they had lived sometimes for two decades or more. The Jamals, Salims and Latikas I know as friends would love this film. They would see themselves and their lives on screen. For that alone, this movie does enough for me. For breaking the luxury porn that most of our usual Bollywood movies are, it gets my vote for whatever title it wants.
Yet there is a “but.” The “but” here is that when it is the only images that we have of basti life, when it is the only acknowledgment by so many of individual, actual people within this dark void that we so easily call the “slum,” then its not enough. It must not be enough. We must pull the slum out of Slumdog and bring it into our own visual and political vocabularies. Celebrating the movie’s success without actually looking at what it is showing us is a cruel hypocrisy. Protesting the movie without offering other ways to access the images that it gives us is an equal hypocrisy. Slumdog, whatever we think about it, has brought us to a doorstep of everyday life in Indian cities: are we going to step in and finally look around at the places we inhabit for what they really are? Or are we going to celebrate a ‘national’ Oscar victory for the places that we systematically first create and then ignore, destroy, and disrespect time and time again?
[cross-posted from the Indian Express this morning, the 26th]