Slumdog Millionaire: Do Slumdogs Make a Nation Proud?

Gilbert Sebastian

The film, Slumdog Millionaire depicts the sorry state-of-affairs in our country: extreme poverty, communal carnages, ‘children left to moral and material abandonment’, gangs operating forced beggary, mafia underworld, torture in police custody, arrogance of the elite, insensitivity of the middle class …. In short, it paints the horrendous reality and the ugly face of the Other India and also the dreams, aspirations and heroic struggles of those inhabiting therein. Plausibly, the depiction of the day-to-day heroic struggles of the underdogs in our country looks exotic for the audience from affluent countries (quite like the thrill of an adventurous trekking!) which might explain the reason why the film was a greater success in those countries than in our own country. It depicts the underbelly of the fast-growing economy leaping forward with 8-9 per cent growth even in the midst of the global financial meltdown – the only country, other than China, with impressive growth rates today. For all the criticisms of portraying the gloomy side of the Indian reality, hardly anyone contests the veracity of such a depiction. The film, of course, ends giving illusions of a millionaire’s life even to the slumdogs, an illusion of social mobility that characterises the liberal democratic social order. In other words, a way-out is shown within the bounds of the system itself.

Of course, the upwardly mobile classes in India detest projecting a grim face of India to the world outside because it is thought of as a slur on the image of an India globalising. It took Danny Boyle, a foreigner to paint this ugly face of ‘India shining’. The film reminds us of the statement by B.R. Ambedkar, “Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on the Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.” The age-old Indian system of multi-layered oppression ensured that most individuals and groups find themselves more privileged with respect to some others, leaving their moral bases for challenging oppression weak. Is it simply that we, the Indian middle and upper classes have ourselves, become too complacent or indifferent towards the day-to-day existential struggles of our ‘long suffering people’, struggles, probably much more severe than in any other Third World country? Or is this cunning of silence to be explained with reference to the fact that the existence of a vast population of have-nots ensures the comfort of the elite. After all, do not the elite of the affluent countries have to take care of their young, cook, wash and do other mundane things by themselves when the elite in India do not have to do any of these? However, the sustainability of this level of comfort is suspect since the existence of a vast population of the underdogs can lead to social upheavals and increased levels of violence in society, an aspect not left untouched by this film. Or is it that we are trapped in the snare of our own patriotism, guided by the mindset that we shouldn’t wash our dirty linen in public?

President Pratibha Patil congratulated the artists of Slumdog Millionaire for “making India proud”. Congress President Sonia Gandhi felt that the team of this film “have done India proud”. Shall we, indeed, become proud of the achievements of these individual artists or put our heads down in shame on the sorry state-of-affairs in our country on the 62nd year of ‘independence’? With the Oscar recognition to the film, “Jai ho” is the new fashion of greeting that is going rounds among the so-called patriotic Indians. But just a minute, please. Jai ho what? Jai ho this sorry state-of-affairs? Jai ho our country, excluding its luckless millions? Let us face it: If only this film leads to serious efforts especially by those in positions of ‘doability’ to undo the evil of unprotected childhoods – a condition of children being left to ‘moral and material abandonment’ could the yells of Jai ho have any meaning or relevance. Can the State, the policy makers and all in positions of ‘doability’ initiate sincere efforts to remove this curse? It is the election year, after all. Let us have serious efforts for the implementation of at least one of the Directive Principles in our Constitution, Article 39(f): “The State shall, in particular, direct its policy towards securing that children are given opportunities and facilities to develop in a healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity and that childhood and youth are protected against exploitation and against moral and material abandonment.” Along with the infamous horrors of Nithari near NOIDA, 7,912 children, mostly from very poor backgrounds, gone missing in Delhi during the one and half years from Jan. 2007 to June 2008 and 2210 children gone missing in Delhi during 1 June 2008 to 12 Jan. 2009 (Indian Express, ‘ExpressNewsline’, 3 March 2009, New Delhi) is no mean context for initiating these efforts. Listening to the unthinking yells of Jai ho, one is reminded of two lines from the Telugu poet, N.K.:

Even to this day, the shackles of my country are not broken …
Who has composed a tune for ungotten freedom?

Gilbert Sebastian works as an Associate Fellow at Council for Social Development, New Delhi. Contact: gilbert_sebs@yahoo.co.in

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