Slumdog Millionaire: Poverty is Nobody’s Fairy-tale

After seeing the film Slumdog Millionaire a few weeks ago, I felt not jubilant, but disturbed. Having been to India five times and (collectively) spending 1.5 years in various locales, I’ve experienced the fascinating, difficult country firsthand.

Poverty is ever-present. The slums are not always hushed into dark pockets of the cities; they may exist alongside opulence on busy boulevards. Though, some slum areas, as shown in the film, are being leveled with high-rise complexes put in their place, further displacing the marginalized. And this is cause for concern.

A good friend of mine, a native of Calcutta, recently told me this in a correspondence:

In India the situation is getting from bad to worse. There is NO accountability at all. The new change now is that many of the downtroddens are rising up to protest / to demand . The Adivasis are rising. The Maoists movement is spreading like wild fire in India. They have support bases in Nepal and Bangladesh. They are as bad as the criminals in other parties. We have lots of political parties with all kinds of names, but basically the goal is the same – ” to come to power and to remain in power ” at any cost.

In Delhi the slums are being destroyed and people are being displaced in preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth Games:

India razes slums, leaves poor homeless

Maiming children, as they did in the film by blinding a boy, is not simply a movie phenomenon nor is it a rare occurrence. If a begging person is missing part of a limb or if they are blind, more money may be extracting from the unwitting. It plays on our emotions.

During my last trip to India I had a personal encounter with a young boy who was a victim of intentional maiming. I was walking down Main Bazaar in Delhi when he spotted me. Westerners with money enough to travel to India are prime targets.

img_7323boy_hand2

He came running towards me and then trotted alongside me, parroting “fifty rupees!, fifty rupees!”. It was the desolate look in his eyes that first caught my attention. Seeing his missing hand explained the expression.

The end of his arm was covered with a clean, stark white bandage. It stood in sharp contrast to the layers of dirt on his face, feet and clothes.

I stopped walking and asked him “who did this to you?” Both enraged and haunted by this child’s circumstance, I continued to try talking with him but he only knew enough english to beg for money, not converse with a foreigner.

I did not give the child 50 rupees but settled on ten in exchange for his portrait. I felt a twinge of guilt about that, but I knew I would not be allowed one without compensation.

I saw the boy a few days later in nearly the same stretch of Main Bazaar. However, this time his bandage was bloody and dirty. He was jumping up and down with his mutilated arm in the air, trying to get the attention of a (western) couple who were in conversation and paying no attention to him.

A month later, in Dharamsala, I met a man who had also seen this boy when he was in Delhi. He told me he saw him squeezing the end of his arm to make the bandage bloodier, and hopefully, more profitable.

Those who’ve not spent time in India wouldn’t necessarily know what parts of the film Slumdog Millionaire are fact versus fiction, though it’s well known that India is home to a wealth of impoverished people.

The fiction is the fairy-tale ending, and the sense it gives moviegoers, that despite deep poverty and dangerous conditions, the people are still smiling happy, even dancing for joy in the railway station, a place where many street children make their home.

I think this illusion gives us permission to go back to life as usual after the credits roll and the curtain falls. Their situation and suffering is not something we need concern ourselves with. Besides, they’re happy. Aren’t they?

* * *

See: Slumdog Millionaire’s child actors still live in ‘grinding poverty’ in Mumbai

Rubina Ali and Azharuddin Ismail, two of the child actors in “Slumdog Millionaire,” are still living in the slums of Mumbai, despite the film’s $14 million budget and worldwide success. Ali earned 500 British pounds ($710) for one year’s work and Ismail earned 1700 pounds ($2414), “less than many Indian domestic servants“:

Both children were found places in a local school and receive £20 a month for books and food. However, they continue to live in grinding poverty and their families say they have received no details of the trust funds set up in their names. Their parents said that they had hoped the film would be their ticket out of the slums, and that its success had made them realise how little their children had been paid.

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