By David Lewis, Dennis Rodgers and Michael Woolcock
Earlier this week the film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ won an extraordinary eight Academy Awards, including for best film and best director. Set in the teeming slums of Mumbai, India, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ provides a moving account of a poor orphaned teenager’s quest for recognition and dignity, overcoming numerous obstacles en route to winning the grand prize on a lucrative game show, and in the process the heart of his true love. It’s a well-made and uplifting film; we applaud its success, and extend our sincere congratulations to all those involved in its production. But to the extent the film draws its moral force and emotional energy from its context, what can ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ teach us about slums? More generally, what are the strengths and limitations of cinematography as a medium for conveying complex realities about the causes and experience of mass poverty?
As with most successful films, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ works to the extent it is able to tell a captivating story, in this case drawing on timeless themes of love and yearning, of taking great risks, and enduring injustice and overcoming discrimination, in order to realize one’s heart’s desire. For the central protagonist Jamal Malik, however, the stakes are raised even higher, given his lowly circumstances and lack of education, which make it not only highly unlikely that he will ever have the means or opportunity to extract himself from the squalor of the slum, but more importantly, that he is powerless to prevent his beloved Latika from being taken away, first by a slum pimp, and then by a crime lord. After years of searching fruitlessly for her, she is tantalisingly taken away from him again just as they are about to be reunited. Not knowing how to get back in touch with her, he tries out for the Indian equivalent of ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire?’, which he knows she will be watching. In an improbable—but ‘bizarrely plausible’—manner, Jamal overcomes the odds and wins the show, thereby reconnecting with Latika.
In the end, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is of course just a film, and makes no claim to be a work of social science or a ‘representative’ account of the causes and consequences of living in a slum. But for most western cinema-goers, however, such films—like ‘City of Joy’ and ‘City of God’ before it—are a rare chance to see a portrayal of the circumstances encountered by tens of millions of poor people in developing countries every day. To this extent, even if such films are primarily concerned with entertainment and profit-making in less than a two-hour timeframe—and mainly follow a neat, conventional and arguably quite conservative narrative arc of struggle and ultimate redemption that inherently appeals to emotion (as opposed to ‘empirical evidence’) and often works via crude individualistic juxtapositions (good guys vs. bad) —they arguably nevertheless offer some insight into the lives of others living elsewhere, which can only be a good thing. The question, then, is whether they can be said to convey an accurate picture of slum life.
In this regard, although we are far from being film experts, we have collectively spent many years studying slum life up close in Latin America, South Asia, and—to a lesser extent—the Caribbean. In our view, films such as ‘Slumdog Millionaire’—perhaps more so than any other medium—give outsiders a rare sense of the vibrant energy, frenetic pace and ‘ordered chaos’ of life among the poor in urban settlements. Carefully done, such films can provide instructive insights on the precarious state of many slum dwellers’ lives (i.e., the constant threat of conflict, illness, the confiscation of precious assets), of the immense influence wielded by the powerful, of the paradoxical role played by the police (simultaneously part of the problem and solution), and yet also the full range of emotions that the inhabitants of slums endure like any human being—from abundant joy and hope to relentless grief and enduring sadness. If these features seem contradictory, then that is just another feature of slum life. Good novels, such as Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, stress precisely these issues, but rely on the power of imagination to concoct scenes that are far removed from most readers’ own direct experience; a good film—even when its screenplay is adapted from a novel, as is the case of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, based on Vikas Swarup’s Q & A—can convey that reality like none other.
Cinema-goers should not think, however, that films such as ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ provide a full account of why poor people are poor (‘it is fated’) or a basis on which to respond to it (‘get motivated, take a chance’). Unlike the questions on game-shows such as ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’, the answers to questions pertaining to grinding urban poverty can’t sensibly be reduced to multiple choice options. The existence of slums is not merely the product of individual actions writ large, but large structural forces of industrialization, inequality, politics and migration writ small. How, why and the extent to which these forces play out in different regions, countries, and states is properly the subject of detailed historical and social scientific analysis. There is no single ‘answer’ as to what can be done to enhance the welfare of slum dwellers, but neither is social science mute or indifferent. Guaranteed work programmes, identity registration schemes, securing property rights, citizen report cards to enhance service delivery, micro-credit systems, innovative criminal justice facilities and the involvement of the poor in urban design are all responses that have made a constructive difference in the lives of slum dwellers, in part because they are more often than not context-specific responses to a deeply complex problem.
The success of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is a signature accomplishment for the British film industry, and should be recognized and celebrated as such. But it should also be encouraged and applauded as a form of artistic representation that raises peoples’ general awareness of how millions of poor people live. Such awareness is not only important in its own right but also because it is part of the process by which broad political constituencies for change are forged. The issue is thus not whether ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ has represented urban poverty ‘better’ than social scientific or policy-oriented analysis, but rather how different kinds of knowledge convey different kinds of issues for different kinds of audiences. A judicious integration of popular and formal representation can be the basis of both enlightening entertainment and solid public policy.