By Anthony L Hall
And none of them even dream of becoming a millionaire.
The film Slumdog Millionaire
was all the rage in 2008. It garnered ten Oscar nominations and won eight, including for Best Picture and Directing (by Danny Boyle).
Anthony L. Hall is a Bahamian who descends from the Turks and Caicos Islands. He is an international lawyer and political consultant - headquartered in Washington DC - who also publishes a current events weblog, The iPINIONS Journal, at http://ipjn.com
But I took umbrage at its rank exploitation of those poor Indian kids -- who actually live in the slum and live off the landfill that provided the setting for this “Hollywood” film. Truth be told, it had me irretrievably shocked and dismayed at the title.
After all, millions of people around the world live in similar settings. And associating the word “millionaire” with any of them is a cruel joke.
On the other hand, the word “slumdog” is all too apropos. Not least because they really do live like stray dogs -- scavenging amidst piles of human trash/waste for food and having to fight off all kinds of wild animals, including buzzards, storks, and cows, for the choice bits.
This is why I was utterly stupefied that so many people found Slumdog Millionaire’s
romanticized version of this life so entertaining. I mean, imagine a film titled Black Slave Millionaire
-- with a similar plot but set on a plantation in the Antebellum South. Because there’s no denying that Slumdog Millionaire
would have more in common with that absurd reality than the fairy tale it depicts.
And don’t get me started on the farcical cultural appropriation that animates this film. For it intimates that Indian “slumdogs” share Western fantasies about winning a game show with the tantalizing, pipe-dream title, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire
Not to mention that it unwittingly parodies the real-life tragedy of chronically poor Westerners who pawn food stamps for lottery tickets, hoping to strike it rich.
Yet the farfetched narrative of Slumdog Millionaire became so ingrained in public consciousness that news organizations began reporting it as fact. No less an organization than CNN did just that in a truly surreal April 15, 2015, report on photographer Timothy Bouldry -- who did in a photo essay what director Boyle did in his feature film:
About 100 families live inside the Boragaon landfill [scavenging] the area for treasure -- a tiny scrap of metal, a bit of plastic, maybe a bone. …
But don’t be deceived: the people living here feel anything but destitute. Bouldry uses words such as ‘love,’ ‘hope’ and ‘spirituality’ to describe them.
‘I found that the landfill community is content … not jaded by modern civilization,’ Bouldry said.
If this idiot could travel back in time, I suppose he’d describe the plantation life of black slaves in similar fashion. Further to this case, though, he’d have you believe that these poor Indians really prefer to live in slums -- scavenging in landfills alongside all the other strays of modern civilization.
Again, the manifest absurdity of this would be laughable if CNN did not report it as fact.
My point is that, but for Boyle’s film, such an absurd notion would never have occurred to an otherwise sensible man like Bouldry. After all, saying these slumdogs are “not jaded by modern civilization” makes even less sense than saying poor people are not jaded by the lifestyles of the rich and famous. No sh*t!
Which is why nothing was more exploitative than Boyle plucking real-life slumdogs from obscurity in India to play in his movie, having them live like the rich and famous for the awards season, and then tossing them back into their slum when he was done with them -- as if they themselves were nothing but trash.
On Sunday night, Azharuddin Ismail and Rubina Ali were in Hollywood, California, getting celebrity treatment as eight Oscars were awarded to the movie they starred in, Slumdog Millionaire.
Thursday night, the two children were sleeping at home in Mumbai, India. Azharuddin sleeps under a plastic sheet in a shantytown beside a railway track, where the smell of urine and cow dung lingers in the air. Rubina sleeps with her parents and siblings in a tiny shack beside an open drain.
(CNN, February 27, 2009)
But here is what has me so riled up about this film -- all over again:
Thirty-five people have been killed in a landslide at a vast rubbish dump on the outskirts of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, officials say.
Many people had been scavenging at the site to make a living, and some even resided there permanently.
There are fears that the death toll will rise further.
(BBC, March 12, 2017)
They died rather dramatically from a landfill landslide on this occasion in Ethiopia. But I suspect just as many slumdogs die rather quietly from the landfill toxins they ingest on a regular basis in India.
Alas, such is the real life of the people Slumdog Millionaire depicts. And I doubt any of them has ever spared a moment of their day to fantasize about winning a game show and becoming a millionaire.
More to the point, it hardly speaks well of modern civilization that we are normalizing, even romanticizing, people living in and living off bio-hazardous landfills. Instead, we should be pressuring leaders of developing countries to spend less on things like crony capital expenditures and useless military weapons and more on things like subsidized housing and health care for the poorest of their poor people.
That said, I’d be remiss not to mention that, a week ago today, family and friends down in The Bahamas began sounding alarms about a massive landfill fire emitting so much smoke they could barely breathe.
You might think I should, but I couldn’t possibly comment. For to do so in this context would be tantamount to complaining about “rich people problems.” Nobody died. Nobody lost her home.
* This commentary was originally published at The iPINIONS Journal on Monday, March 13.