Childhood poverty in Slumdog Millionaire

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In Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008), Boyle provides Western audiences with a glimpse of ‘the real India’, which is similar to an aestheticized tour of Third World poverty (Chan 2010). The films release in India faced criticism claiming that the film fuels Western stereotypes about poverty in India and that it peddles ‘poverty porn’ (Vashishtha 2009). Hence, this report examines how the film Slumdog Millionaire uses melodramatic styles to increase awareness of poverty on children in India. In other words, this essay demonstrates how emotional response and morality of the melodramatic mode provides identification to the spectator the experiences of childhood suffering with the intention to juxtapose Eastern identities with Westerns identities. This literature specifically focuses on children because the main character, Jamal, is able to win the game show based on his childhood memories. Thus childhood has a central place in the film. In Slumdog Millionaire the figure of the child continues to play in representations of poverty to give the Western audience knowledge of ‘the real India’. Orientalism and postcolonial approach can assist in the analysis of how melodrama is used to represent childhood poverty in the film. Melodrama has a relation to culture, ideology, and history (Brooks 1976). When interpreting Slumdog Millionaire, this report focuses primarily on identifying the narrative and stylistic traits and melodrama as a genre, style, and sensibility. Analyzing Slumdog Millionaire can provide knowledge about how melodrama takes real life tension in order to provide model situations.

Child Chase

Boyle has mentioned that the film is meant to be from the perspective of children from the slums where it is filmed and positioned as a subjective experience from their perspective (Sharma 2012). This subjective viewpoint is a way to show the Western audience that the changing of poverty is nonexistent. Boyle believes that one has to see the life of the slum internally, from the poor children’s perspective (Sharma 2012). However, the film emphasizes through its melodramatic style that childhood in India is not as bright as how Westerners experience their childhood. Orientalist representations are perpetually articulated and reshaped in Western discourses, effectively constructing non-Western cultures for their audiences (Mudambi 278). These representations demonstrate that Indian perceptions and experiences towards children are ‘different’ from the West.

In Slumdog Millionaire children from the slums have always been chased. Virtually everyone in the audience is chased because of its repetition (“The Poverty, the Begging, the Violence the Riots”). In melodrama the word drama is authorized precisely by the kind of pressure of the scene to the spectator (Brooks 1976). The pressure of being chased is dramatized through the fast phase music. At the beginning of the film the scene where a gang of slum children playing cricket in an airport runway and the title of the film appears for the first time on a t-shirt of a ragged child. The music starts off with multiple tabla (South Asian drum) beats with high intensity. Right after the start of the high intense tabla beats, police bikes arrive at the scene with batons thumping while shrieking “private ka-land!” to the children. At the same time, the police shouts saying, “catch him” when Jamal runs to escape from the chasing police. Then the rest of the slum children says “the dogs are coming, run!” The children seem to enjoy the chase because they are mocking the police and giving high-fives to each other while they are running. The objective of the chase does not appear to simply clear the flight runway but for a more horrifying cause which the spectator is unaware of. The case continues beyond the flight runway to the streets of the slums. The longer the chase gets it appears to be that the policemen get more violent and aggressive towards the children. In the mean time, the background music adds more beats with more tabla beats and English lyrics of a song starts off as “they can’t touch me…” . The scene is a mix of comedy and violence, where music alters according to the emotion of the characters during the chase. Similarly, another scene that is critical to this section is when Jamal’s brother suddenly hits a man with the glass bottle of chloroform when the child smuggler tries to deliberately blind Jamal. Right after this scene the children from the orphanage runs away. The camera is mainly focused on the three children, Jamal, Salim (Jamal’s brother), and Lathika who are running through the woods to escape the child smugglers. The background music is also a high intense music with many clashing sounds, which adds emotions to the scene. Melodrama is a dramatic piece characterized by sensational incident and violent appeals to the emotions (Smith 1973). Hence, in this scene the children appear to be horrified and scared not only by the characters’ expressions but also the music. The children appear to be always chased with violence and hatred. The melodrama consciousness includes excitement, anxiousness, and violence (Brooks 1976), which is evident in the scene mentioned above.

Moreover, the emotional drama needs the desemanticized language of music; its evocation of the ‘ineffable’, its tones add non-verbal meaning to the narrative. Styles, thematic structuring, modulations of tone and rhythm and voice-musical patterning in a metaphorical sense demonstrates the depth of the violence in the plot (Brooks 1976).

In both scenes mentioned above the background music of the chase helps the spectator understand how violent or comical the scene is. Smith (1973) demonstrates that music in melodrama adds significant meaning to mise-en-scène and characters of a film. Similarly, musical themes create an emotional response towards the audience. This emotional response serves a much deeper purpose that it demonizes non-Western cultures (Mudambi 2013). Melodramatic styles help the films depictions to confirm and stabilize the hegemonic notion of Western imagination whereby ethnicity is suitable to be represented as othering and exoticisation (Gandhi 126). The chasing of children shows the Western audience the brutal and unfortunate childhood of poor children in India.   The belief goes even further when the spectator realizes film provides an ‘inside’ of a street of a street child’s head (Sharma 2012). The chase after children with violence gives a sense of validation for the Westerners that Western lifestyle is much more civilized. Boyle relies on melodramatic modes to contrast the juxtaposition between the East and the West lifestyles of children. Orientalism produces representations of Eastern culture that define them as irreconcilably different from the “West” (Mudambi 2013). Orientalism is necessarily marked by multiplicities, continuities, and discontinuities through which it adapts to the needs of particular context, including the postcolonial condition. From a postcolonial view Boyle is naturalizing the difference between the Eastern and Western ways of treating children. Regardless to the reality of the situation in the East the film provides a great deal of knowledge to the Western world that these unethical ways of treating children are still practiced in Third World countries.

Western spectator’s gaze on childhood innocence violation

Boyles’s insistence on the childrens own subjective point of view, grouped in their own cultures normative belief system (Sharma 2012) demonstrates how childhood innocence is violated because of heartless adults. The narrative creates the excitement of its drama by putting the spectator in touch with the conflict of good and evil. The desire to express all information to the spectator is a principle characteristic of melodrama (Brooks 1976). Highlighting dire poverty, exploitation, and corruption within the slums is a core characteristic of Slumdog Millionaire. Melodrama can be seen as an ideological contradictory nexus to emphasize cultural tensions. In the film children appear to have lost a sense of childhood innocence because poverty has lead callous adults to use children to generate money. Melodramatic good and evil are highly personalized, they are assigned to inhabit persons who indeed have no psychological complexity but who are strongly characterized. For example, Jamal gets an autograph from Amitabh Bachchan, a famous actor in Bollywood cinema, which Salim sells it to a man. Jamal gets upset because he had to go through a hardship to gain that autograph. However, Salim claims that he got a good price hence he sold it (a good price means a couple rupee coins). This scene depicts young age children valuing anything for money because of the level of poverty. It also makes the young child the villain. Similarly, at that same age Salim takes instructions from children smugglers and gathers more street urchins for their begging business. In this scene Salim takes an infant and forces Lathika to take the baby for begging for that day because “babies earn double.” Salim, at that young age thinking that infants can be used to earn double profit from begging is heartbreaking for a Western spectator. The sense of childhood has completely been corrupted for the needs of inhumane adults. The scene when Jamal and Salim steel shoes from Taj Mahal and car parts to resell as a way to escape from the adult villains and gain harmony in life for their own benefit demonstrates the children’s actions in their later teen years. The poverty of these children has not only made them suffer in life but to also be unethical citizens. Similarly, Salim as a teenage boy blackmails for money and kills Maman (child smuggler and procurer) with a gun given to him from another leading procurer in the city. Another scene that depicts the violation of childhood innocence is when Lathika is used for a high price prostitution value because she is a virgin. However, teenage Salim gets drunk and rapes Lathika after Jamal rescued her from the procurer. As such it has been lauded for challenging “India Shining” and daring to bring global attention to serious problems for Indian society. Melodrama has been one of the most important cultural forms for giving expression to the class, race and gender injury (Wells 2013). Thus, the use of over dramatic mise-en-scène in the film expresses how Western audiences would like to see these problematic notions of India. Postcolonialism demonstrates how ideological discourses create hegemonic normality to the disadvantaged such as race, communities, and people (“The Postcolonial and the Postmodern” 1999). The creation of uneven and otherness is Western Imagination. These initiatives mentioned above supports for Edward Said’s arguments that Western knowledge perpetuates Western power.

In addition, the spectator’s gaze at the cinematic image reminds them that they are looking at the cinematic world of the children. Melodramatic films tend to be polysemic and open (Sharma 2012). Spectators are free to construct their own meanings out of the complex sets of arrangements, representations, and interactions that make up the plot. The difference in audience interpretation are only magnified and multiplied when films like Slumdog Millionaire move across culture. For Indian spectators these depictions of childhood poverty can have a reality however, for a Western audience these depictions are ways of seeing the East as uncivilized. Films like Slumdog Millionaire validate the Western spectators that the “ Orient” must be redefined and made to serve the new goals of a globalized society. A feature crucial to melodrama is its ability to move its spectators and in particular to make them cry or be sympathetic (Neale 1986). Boyle has definitely moved spectators where they know the facts of the situation; the characters true feelings, how characters react to tragedy, how characters think and feel a position accorded them by the narrative’s hierarchical point of view structure. According to the logic of postcolonial critique of the power hierarchies of representation, when a dominant culture seeks to represent the so-called “Third World,” it inevitably runs the risk of “appropriating” it (Chan 2010). The polysemic style of melodrama employed in Slumdog Millionaire originates the racial stereotypes of childhood poverty. Orientalism is how Western culture speaks about other cultures (Balagangadhara 2009), like how Boyle tries to provide an ‘inside’ of a street urchins life.

Childhood innocence violated because of poverty-hunt for money

Boyles’s insistence on the children’s own subjective point of view, grouped in their own culture’s normative belief system (Sharma 2012) demonstrates how childhood innocence is violated because of heartless adults. The narrative creates the excitement of its drama by putting the spectator in touch with the conflict of good and evil. The desire to express all information to the spectator is a principle characteristic of melodrama (Brooks 1976). Highlighting dire poverty, exploitation, and corruption within the slums is a core characteristic of Slumdog Millionaire. Melodrama can be seen as an ideological contradictory nexus to emphasize cultural tensions. In the film children appear to have lost childhood innocence because the poverty has lead callous adults to use children to generate money. Melodramatic good and evil are highly personalized, they are assigned to inhabit persons who indeed have no psychological complexity but who are strongly characterized. For example, Jamal gets an autograph from Amitabh Bachchan, a famous actor in Bollywood cinema, which Salim sells it to a man. Jamal gets upset because he had to go through a hardship to gain that autograph. However, Salim claims that he got a good price hence he sold it (a good price mean couple rupee coins). This scene depicts the young age children valuing anything for money because of the level of poverty. Similarly, at that same age Salim takes instructions from children smugglers and gather more street urchins for their begging business. In this scene Salim says takes an infant and forces Lathika to take the baby for begging for that day because “babies earn double.” Salim’s thinking process, that infants can be used to earn double profit from begging, is heart breaking for a Western spectator. The children’s childhood has completely been corrupted for the needs up inhumane adults. The scene when Jamal and Salim steels shoes from Taj Mahal and car parts to resell as a way to escape from the adult villains and gain harmony in life for their own benefit is of importance here. The poverty of these children has not only made them suffer in life but to also be unethical citizens. Similarly, Salim as a teenage boy blackmails for money and kills Maman (child smuggler and procurer) with a gun given to him from another leading procurer in the city. As such it has been lauded for challenging “India Shining” and daring to bring global attention to serious and pressing problems for Indian society. Melodrama has been one of the most important cultural forms for giving expression to the class, race and gender injury (Wells 2013). The film also depicts how Lathika is used for a high price prostitution value because she is a virgin however, teenage Salim gets drunk and rapes Lathika after Jamal rescued her from the procurer. Thus, postcolonialism demonstrates how ideological discourses create hegemonic normality to the disadvantaged such as race, communities, and people (“The Postcolonial and the Postmodern” 1999). The creation of uneven and otherness is due to Western Imagination. These initiatives mentioned above supports for Edward Said’s arguments that Western knowledge perpetuates Western power.

In addition, the spectator’s gaze at the cinematic image reminds them that they are looking at the cinematic world of the children. Melodramatic films tend to be polysemic and open (Sharma 2012). Spectators are free to construct their own meanings out of the complex sets of arrangements, representations, and interactions that make up the plot. The difference in audience interpretation are only magnified and multiplied when films move across culture, as they so quickly do in these transnational times. For Indian spectators these depictions of childhood poverty can have a reality however, for Western audience these depictions are ways of seeing the East as uncivilized. Films like Slumdog Millionaire validate the Western spectators that the “ Orient” must be redefined and made to serve the new goals of a globalized society. A feature crucial to melodrama is its ability to move its spectators and in particular to make them cry or be sympathetic (Neale 1986). Boyle has definitely moved spectators where they know the facts of the situation; the characters true feelings, how characters react to tragedy, how characters think and feel a position accorded them by the narrative’s hierarchical point of view structure. According to the logic of postcolonial critique of the power hierarchies of representation, when a dominant culture seeks to represent the so-called “Third World,” it inevitably runs the risk of “appropriating” it (Chan 2010). The polysemic style of melodrama employed in Slumdog Millionaire originates the racial stereotypes of childhood poverty. Orientalism is how Western culture speaks about other cultures (Balagangadhara 2009) like how Boyle tries to provide an ‘inside’ view into a street urchins life.

Place and Space

A more useful line of critique challenges Slumdog Millionaire’s focus on the individual experience of slum dwellers rather than on the systematic nature of poverty. One thing all senses of culture share is the idea that culture comes from some place. In Slumdog Millionaire the importance of space has been emphasized with the use of vivid colours in relation to melodramatic styles. The film merely highlights the poverty in India while in fact commodifying it for Western audience. In melodrama the intense signification leads the audience in a movement through and beyond the surface of things to what lies behind, to which is the true scene of the highly colored drama (Brooks 1976). Boyle’s extreme use of vivid colours to romanticize poverty is a key phenomenon to the exoticism mentioned in Orientalism where cultural otherness is asserted (Gandhi 1998). Hence, the remarkable use of colours escalates the cinematic feeling of suspense and drama in the film to demonstrate the environment where street urchins live.

Other true-to-life scenes in Slumdog that the real youngsters pick out include those depicting small children working as rag-pickers in a rubbish dump, and the film’s portrayal of a violent sectarian riot (“The Poverty, the Begging, the Violence the Riots”). Interrogating the constructions of fantasy in the film is evident in the bird-eye-view scene of Salim meeting one of the leading procurers in the city. The scene captures the streets with a vibrant yellow and black taxis and street lights that appears like stars. Another bird-eye-view of the roofs and rubbish dump of the slums at the beginning of the film also appear to have bright colours for an unpleasant view. Similarly, the horrifying scene of Jamal’s mother being killed because of Hindu people chasing to destroy Muslim Indians. This scene is also an example of Boyle’s use of extreme colour to affirm the mood of the scene and to emphasize the dangerous space and place where children nurture in. The colours and lighting is a way of creating a sensual mood, which is deep and bright, often times mixing unexpected shades together. Mudambi (2013) argues that the film constructs Mumbai, India as such a world of both reality and fantasy to depict it as a hyperreality that is simultaneously a believable palatable to the audience. The melodramatic use of colour and lighting encourages the spectator to adopt a tourist’s gaze of India through the hyperreality. This gaze, according to postcolonialism, demonstrates how equality is not a part of the modern systems of the world. These uneven cultural representations are also rooted based on the power dynamics within the modern world

In addition, there has also been a tendency for certain films produced in the West to depict India in a dream-like, utopian manner where India is often represented as the land of milk and honey where overindulgences, excesses, and vices are an integral part of the culture. The use of such types of seemingly positive stereotypes has also been referred to as the cultural riches approach that seemed to portray India as a virgin, unexplored land waiting to be enjoyed by Westerners without acknowledging any anti-colonial sentiments (Ramasubramanian 2005). Contrary, since the reception of the film appealed to a largely Western, not Indian audience (Sharma 2012), India’s poverty in slum streets is highlighted to illustrate that the Orient is different. The film critically sells out to what is often perceived as the “authentic” Third World experience – poverty, squalor and repression. The history of stereotypical representations of India largely dates back to colonial rule in India when the narrative accounts and photographic illustrations by missionaries, anthropologists, and government officials focused on depicting Indians as savage and uncivil simple folks (Ramasubramanian 2005). Boyle has continued to depict India from a post-colonial perspective to affirm the poverty and otherness of the nation. The melodramatic representation of Indian slum children’s place concerns over identity and authenticity occur as the identities of place and individuals come to be contested and renegotiated.

Use of emotion to express Otherness

In melodrama, the hero is not master of his fate. The hero is always sinned against and never sinning (Smith 1973). In Slumdog Millionaire Jamal is definitely the hero; similarly Salim is also a hero, however, he can easily be distracted with sins. Both these heroes are beaten by adults multiple occasions through out the film. Melodrama expresses the anxiety and fear to emphasize the morality of cultural traditions (Brooks 1976). The opening scene, which features the police officer torcher Jamal, gives anxiety to the spectator because of the dramatic actions of the torcher. The film’s popularity owes much to the filmmakers prescient ability to select those aspects of local culture that carried over to audiences in the West/North and suppress other aspects that might have limited the film’s scope or otherwise interfered with its appeal to those audience. Scenes of dramatic choice heighten moral alternatives, where every gesture is charged with the conflict between light and darkness, salvation and damnation, and where peoples destinies and choices of life are explored (Brooks 1976).

Moreover, representations of heartless adults and communal strife are a way of creating an image of India, which conforms to Orientalist ideologies of an exotic, primitive Other (Chan 2010 and Mudambi 2013). For example, while Jamal is escorting an American couple through the sights, their rented automobile is disabused of its value by Salim and his gang of thieves. When the driver turns upon Jamal, hitting and kicking him, he raises his teary eyes up to the American couple and says, “You wanted to see the ‘real India’, Mister David. Here it is” mouthing to her husband, “money,” whereupon, the husband peels off dollar bills from his wallet to give to Jamal. Obviously, Boyle is undercutting the U.S’s inflated self-image as the richest, most powerful country in the world. Boyle, of course, refers to the side of India so poverty troubled and chaotic that it lacks all human decency and respect. It becomes clear here that the film does indeed claim to represent a certain “authentic” image of India, aligned with the perception of it as a “Third World,” Othered nation to “slum tourism.” With themes of love, suffering, betrayal, sacrifice, and redemption, melodrama puts its audiences through the emotional roller coaster. Through these evoked intense feelings it suggests the imaginative and discursive construction of the Orient, including its inhabitants and its culture, with diminished regard for its real, concrete existence (Sim 2012). The implications for social justifications that could be provided for cultural imperialism of the West by establishing Indian peoples as inferior and incompetent who need to be civilized (Ramasubramanian 2005). Melodrama is a form of dramatic composition in prose sharing the nature of tragedy, pantomime, and spectacle, and intended for a popular audience. Emotions heightened from the film derive clashing moral forces that Orientalism is not only an experiential discourse but also a way of structuring this experience. Spectators are able to overcome the representations of child abuse in the film as it expresses the experience of one culture, that allows another culture (West) to view it differently.

 

Tinu Silva

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