Slumdog Millionaire: The Continuing Controversy

By B. R. Gowani

The impact and the reactions caused by the Danny Boyle film Slumdog Millionaire, its Oscar nominations, and consequent winning of eight Academy Awards including 2008’s Best Picture, has been unprecedented in my recent memory. It seems to have evoked praise by just as many people as have blasted it in the way dire poverty in India has been depicted in the movie.

Many of the slum dwellers in Dharavi, Mumbai, where the film is shot have not liked the way their slum has been portrayed. But there may be many who are feeling happy and hopeful that their plight has been communicated to the world and this may hopefully bring some positive change in their lives. In the end, it really doesn’t matter that the conveyor of their plight happens to be a white person and not an Indian. Also, many Muslims are probably glad that, for a change, they are in the spotlight as the victims and not terrorists as the Western media is so fond of portraying them. People impacted by the dreadful poverty depicted in the movie may be somewhat comforted that the world is now seeing the hidden face of India, their India, rather than the utopian depiction romanticized in the media as the up and coming great power only.

It has made the patriots and the nationalists uncomfortable to see their country associated with slums. Actor Amitabh Bachchan criticized the movie: “if SM projects India as [a] third-world, dirty, underbelly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky underbelly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations.” He also added: “It’s just that the SM idea, authored by an Indian and conceived and cinematically put together by a westerner, gets creative globe recognition. The other would perhaps not.” But On BBC Amitabh clarified: “Fact is – some one mentioned the film on my blog. Some expressed opinion for it, some against. And yes, they contained some strong assumptions. I merely put both of them up and invited debate.” In the past, the famous actress Nargis expressed her dislike in the way the great filmmaker Satyajit Ray portrayed poverty in India, especially in his own state of Bengal.

The argument that Boyle is white and therefore the movie received the awards is thought provoking that even in 21st century racism still exists. (The Academy Awards were instituted in 1927, but it was in 2001 that the Academy decided that a black actress should be granted an Oscar. Halle Berry is the only black actress to have received the honor to date.) After the film had received a couple of awards I knew that its fate had been decided, similar to the slum dog being made the millionaire plot of the movie and the union of the female and male protagonists.

Racism takes many forms. One form is insensitivity and indifference, as happened during the red carpet Oscar Award evening with the E-channel reporter who was covering the dresses, designers, and other aspects of the gala event while conducting mini impromptu interviews with the celebrity actors and actresses. When he saw the SM child actors, he mentioned only two actors’ names, and then put an illegible note with the rest of the actors’ names in front of the camera for a few seconds and the camera moved back on the children who were asked a couple of questions in an amusing patronizing manner. This left many viewers upset.

Hollywood has always been a global affair in so far as its films making money from foreign countries and the televised ceremony of Oscars are concerned. However, only recently is it attempting to give some semblance of globalism in recognizing, or even considering, third world countries like India.*

Slumdog Millionaire is not as artistic as a Satyajit Ray movie but if one compares it to a commercial movie, then I think it was a well made movie. Of course, the idea that a slum dweller can become a millionaire is like winning a super lottery plus [probably without even buying a ticket], so utterly unrealistic, but the film overall has the element to keep one glued to the screen; and many of the things shown in the film are realities for the millions of people who live this poverty on a daily basis. But for those slum children who acted in the film and then attended the Oscar ceremony, it really was like winning the lottery (albeit, without their due of the financial success), to have come all the way from Mumbai slums to the glory and glitter of Hollywood.

I hope that the nationalists and the patriots will do something to eliminate this “dirty, underbelly”, now that the movie has exposed it and it has generated such uproar.

B. R. Gowani can be reached at

*The cosmetics and related industries were quick to recognize India as a country of 1 billion “al consumers.” This happened in the wake of the new 1990s Indian policy of changing to “market economy.” This set the ball rolling. Suddenly now, the judges of the beauty contests in the West discovered that Indian women were beautiful; and so they began to be crowned Miss Universe and Miss World. So in the end, it is the driving need for profit that drives all decisions on who is beautiful, who wins awards, who is “in” etc.

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