Thursday, February 19, 2009

Slumdog Anxieties

Over the past few months... well actually about a year now... one of my first-thing-in-the-morning rituals is to read the Huffington Post. It started out because of the election frenzy, but now it's just become routine. Besides, I am trying to avoid watching too much T.V. and so the "HuffPo" is a quick and easy way of keeping in touch with what's happening in the world.

A couple of days ago, while performing this morning ritual, I across an article about Nate Silver's Oscar predictions. (Nate Silver's the genius stats dude of - another website I followed during the elections, but has since fallen to the wayside in terms of the blogs I follow. Also - just a funny aside - when I was an undergrad, my advisor encouraged me to combine my politics and math majors to do the kind of stuff Nate Silver does... I love and respect my advisor, but really that was just the worst idea ever. It excited me for about 10 seconds. I'm much happier being on the spectator side of the work, going "damn, that dude's good!") Anyway, back to Silver's Oscar predictions. In the Best Director and Best Picture categories, he gives Danny Boyle and Slumdog Millionaire a 99.7% and 99% chance of winning, respectively. Now, when Slumdog swept the Emmies (or whatever the first award show of the season was), I was jubilant, proud even. But Silver's prediction made me cringe.

Don't get me wrong. When I watched the movie I was very impressed, very moved, and again, pretty proud. My experience watching Slumdog, though, was very intimate. For one thing, Bombay is the city I grew up, and despite whatever problems and frustrations and discomforts I have with it, I do love it. Each time I go back home, I can't help but marvel at it. I will admit, much of this sentiment can be attributed to nostalgia. Having been away for almost 8 years, and visiting for between 1-3 months every year or two, allows me this luxury. But, still, it is a pretty incredible place. And so, generally, when I see even glimpses of it in movies or videos, I tend to be moved. But to watch a movie, almost entirely set in, or atleast referenced back to, Bombay was a pretty intense experience. And, the love story aside, the movie is actually pretty complex - or atleast it was for me, because there was so much in there that I could relate to, or identify with - not in terms of relating to the characters and their experiences, but rather, even in that moment of spectatorship, feeling the same sense of accountability and distress that I do when I encounter an enfleshed Bombay. In short, for me, the movie felt very familiar, and hence very intimate.

Also, I watched the movie just about a week after the attacks in Bombay "ended" and so I was already a bit emotionally raw, and feeling incredibly connected to the city. And, this was also the time at which I was reading Maximum City by Suketu Mehta, the book upon which much of the cinamatography of Slumdog is based. All of this put together made watching Slumdog an incredibly special, and intimate, and moving experience for me. I felt like finally there was a complex, compelling movie about Bombay, or India even, that was getting some play abroad. (Another movie I would higly recommend is Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay! It's actually probably a much better movie, much much harder to watch... But I'm not sure what kind of play or acclaim it received in the States.)

My feelings regarding all this have changed substantially since then. With all of the visibility that the film has been receiving, I am terrified that it has become just another ethnographic piece about a place/space - i.e. Bombay, in particular, and India, in general - that is already viewed with much intrigue, enchantment and colonial desire/imperialist nostaligia. Everyone I know seems to have watched, and enjoyed, the film. But somehow, even when it comes to the most critical eye, I want to protect the movie, to shield it, from any kind of "western" gaze. For a term paper last quarter, I wrote about the ways in which India/Indian space/places are viewed within the context of world literature. I think that some of what I wrote there is applicable to ways in which Slumdog may be viewed by "western" audiences , and hence explains some of my anxiety about the film receiving so much visibility. Here's an excerpt from the paper:

The Lonely Planet travel guide introduces Bombay thus:
Measure out: one part Hollywood; six parts traffic; a bunch of rich power-moguls; stir in half a dozen colonial relics (use big ones); pour in six heaped cups of poverty; add a smattering of swish bars and restaurants (don’t skimp on quality here for best results); equal parts of mayhem and order; as many ancient bazaars as you have lying around; a handful of Hinduism; a dash of Islam; fold in your mixture with equal parts India; throw it all in a blender on high (adding generous helpings of pollution to taste) and presto: Mumbai.

There resides in this description the same kind of romanticization of fragmentation and hybridity that we find say in [Salman] Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or in Homi Bhabha’s piece on “Bombay.” Bhabha, for instance, describes Bombay in its intimacy, thus:
I will always be a Bombayite in my love for the vibrancy and vitality of contrasts that are so much part of Bombay’s urban experience. Wherever I live in the world I shall always serve goa prawn curry, and biryani and bhel-puri and beef Wellington and “sahs ni macchi” all at the same dinner party, and yes, that indulgence and excess and hospitality (with a touch of vulgarity perhaps) is what it means to be a Bombayite. … I will always protest against poverty, dirt, property prices, corruption and privilege because I am a Bombayite. I will never fail to jump the queue, demand special treatment, further corrupt an already corrupt bureaucracy because I am a Bombayite. … As a Bombayite I admire the sheer spirit of survival, even as I complain that the pavements are for walking not sleeping.

There is in both descriptions a poetics that attempts to capture the co-existence of the squalor and splendor of the city – a “geomythical place” (Bhabha) standing-in for a country that for centuries has served as a fantasy space for the interplay between affective sentiments and affectable sensibilities.

I use the term ‘affective sentiments’ with reference to Jasbir Puar's [Terrorist Assembages] discussion on affect to signify ways in which “those who are living” are recognized not through complex subjectivities but rather “as part of one or many populations, not individuals, but “dividuals.”” What matters here are “how things feel, …sensations matter.” Affective sentiments thus produce what Puar calls contagions where “bodies [and I would add, places] infect other bodies with sensation, vibration, irregularity, chaos” so that the “effects of touch, smell, taste, hearing, and sight... [turn into] shivers, seat, blushes, heat, and pain, among many other senstations” (172). In short, it is the affective sentiment that is aroused by glossy, colorful pictures of Indian cities, peoples and foods. It is within this frame, I would suggest, that the juxtaposition of the pickle factory – with its many colors, smells and sounds – with the man “taking a shit” outside Saleem’s window in Midnight’s Children, becomes an enchanting possibility instead of a moment that produces an ethical crisis. Or that Dharavi – Asia’s largest slum [where much of Slumdog was shot] – can become a tourist hotspot. Here, then, lies the romance of India, or Bombay, in the affective sentiment, or gaze, it enjoys.

The affectable sensibilities of India pose a far more threatening problem. The affectable being, according to Denise Ferreira da Silva [Toward a Global Idea of Race], is the other of Europe, one instituted through exterior determination, whose body and mind are both ‘things of world,’ affected by, or acted upon, by reason exterior to itself, a reason belonging to the realm of nature. The affectable being is not a thing of intellect or knowledge, and is incapable of recognizing, let only actualizing (a la Hegel), its own essence. Thus, the affectable sensibilities are those irrational, violent traits that, under colonial logic, were to be dominated and tamed, but in a postcolonial/global context remain incomprehensible. Herein lies the un-romanticizable poverty and violence that exceeds the palate of the western reader/gazer who, as Arudhati Roy points out, desires just enough of a glimpse of India, without having to actually get bogged down with the realities of existence within these spaces.

This, then, is the dilemma of postcolonial readings of India – being caught between affective sentiments and affectable sensibilities.

When I viewed Slumdog, the film represented to me a radical, productive possibility for re-articulating affectability (per Silva's definition) - so that the body, the violence commited upon it, and the body's response (radical resistance) to the violence (as depicted by the film) could become a moment of accountability, a moment that created an "implicated spectator," i.e. a spectator who not only recognized themselves as a participant of the violence (spectacularized by the film), but one who was also compelled to recognize and confront their own affectability. So that affect and affectability became sites for the production of political possibilities, rather than mere markers of pre- or anti-modernity.

The mass consumption of the film, however, I think has re-kindled a gaze that is structured through ‘affective sentiments.’ Within this context, the affectibility represented in the film still maintains a level of 'foreign-ness,' so that, per Roy's critique, all the film offers is "just enough of a glimpse of India, without having to actually get bogged down with the realities of existence within these spaces." Under the western gaze, then, Slumdog is Bollywood made legible; a Monsoon Wedding of sorts; a representative picture of Bombay/India. It becomes merely what Jon Stewart referred to as "the most depressing feel-good movie ever."

I do not have a very good idea of the film was received in India. My parents did watch it, however, and they found it "fine." Not that fantastic, not that moving. And that makes quite a bit of sense to me. I think perhaps had I watched the movie in India, my reaction too might have been different. I imagine that when my parents emerged from the theater after watching the movie, they were surronded by a group "slumdog kids" asking for money or food, some asking for a tip for guarding their car, other requesting to clean the car for a few rupees. On their way home, my parents probably drove past one of the places that is notorious for maiming street kids and hiring them out to beg each day. Those that live in Bombay, like my parents, probably did not see much humor, or enterpreneural resistance, in the scenes where Jamal and Salim steal people's handbags from under rises, or steal shoes from outside temples to resell to those worshippers who found their shoes missing. This is the reality of life in places like Bombay, so that many temples have guards outside just to keep a check on shoes, or that one of things you are taught as you grow older is how to hold a handbag, or in which pocket to keep your wallet, to prevent them from getting stolen. But this too, is the travesty of the film - that those that live in such close proximity to what is represented by the film, are unable perhaps to view themselves as "implicated spectators." So does the film become reduced once again to a fairy-tale love story?

There have however been multiple articles on how the film was received in the slums themselves. These are interesting because, to some extent, they do actually reveal the very complexities that the film, per my reading, attempts to convey. I haven't done much research on these articles, or tried to find more, so I won't say more about that.

There is just one more point I want to make though, about what happens to the child actors, who themselves are street kids, after the film is made. When the movie Salaam Bombay! was made, I remember newspapers and T.V. shows being rife with the news that one of the American crew (one of the producers perhaps?) had decided to adopt one of the kid actors in the movie, who also lived in a slum, because she had "fallen in love" with him. This story enrages me everytime I think about it, because - while, as I recall, news reports in India attempted to romanticize the story, to cheer for this little boy who got "lucky" because he was going to get such a better life in the U.S., - one has to wonder at the audacity of this woman to think that her love - because of the money, capital, and location (i.e. the whiteness) associated with it - was more valuable than the boy's own family's. Could she think of no better, no more "just", less violent way of expressing her love, other than taking the child away from his family? I am not arguing here for the integrity of "family," but rather at the horrifically banal ways in which power functions.

Also, when I watched the movie, there were little documentary pieces about what had happened to the kid actors, not that they were adults. Other than the child who was adopted (it was really frustrating to hear him talk about how lucky and thankful he was to his adoptive parent for rescuing him because his life back home might have been miserable. There was no comment, as far as I recall, about whether he had seen his family since he left, or whether he was still even in touch them,), other than him, all the others had barely been supported post-film. As many of them suggested, no one recognized them any more, no one wanted to cast them in any films (despite the professional training them had received prior to the film). Where was their "cut" of all the fame and professional/economic capital that the crew received from the success of the film?

I was reminded of this when I watched Slumdog, too. For a very long time I wondered why the visbility of these kids was limited to "shout outs" from the award stages, why they themselves were not given the opportunity to travel with the remainder of the cast and crew. To what extent were they compensated? In what ways are they being supported post-production? How does this film actually help other kids growing up in the slums? Just recently, I found a couple of articles - one about education funds set up for the child stars, another about how they will be traveling to the Oscars. This is all well and good, a step-up perhaps from the child actors in Salaam Bombay! but yet, I have to wonder...


christina said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


manong danny said...

it was the golden globes. the emmy awards is for television (i know, the least important thing to comment on).