Saturday, January 24, 2009

"Slumdog Millionaire" Movie Offers Humanizing Insights Into Lives of those Living in Extreme Poverty

Immediately upon leaving the Mumbai airport as you travel south into the city, you’re struck by the endless sight of the flimsy metal and cardboard shacks known as “hutments,” one built haphazardly upon another, for as far as the eye can see. In the harsh cold of a northern climate like my native Wisconsin, a person could scarcely survive for a day in these chaotic creations that barely pass for housing, but here they at least offer partial protection from the heat of the mid-day sun and the powerful force of the monsoon rain.

India is nothing if not a land of extremes, of beautiful edifices dating back to antiquity alongside the thriving new highrises being claimed as home by an ever-burgeoning middle class. But amidst the beauty and prosperity, live people who are barely making it. For many visiting Westerners, the sights and sounds and smells associated with extreme poverty are more of a culture shock than they can tolerate, and more than a few have been known to venture but a mile or two down the road from the airport before doing an about face and getting on the next plane home.

Traveling to India in 1989 with my mom, sharing in her powerful voyage of rediscovery of a place that had greatly influenced her as a young adult, (following college, she was a teacher/acting principal for four years in the early 1950s at a Methodist Church-supported north Indian high school), I wasn’t about to turn back. It felt as if I’d been well-prepared for culture shock by our hosts—family friends Fred and Naomi, who had called this city their home for the previous 40 years—who helped me find ways to put these experiences of poverty into some sort of socio-political context. Yet, as I reflect back on that trip now, I realize that part of the way that I was coping with the presence of the extremity of the poverty I was seeing was to compartmentalize it, seeing those around me as somehow inevitably tied to a kind of subhuman existence that had little in common with my own life.

I could hardly imagine anyone living any kind of meaningful existence in such an environment that involved anything other than basic bare bones survival. As the miles passed on that memorable ride into the city, and the hutments were replaced by slightly more substantial housing composed of cinder block and metal-reinforced-concrete, all I could imagine of life in the hutments was people stooping low and cowering in an eternal state of emptiness, deprivation, illiteracy and a chronic ignorance of the world beyond.

Such an existence could only hold people living lives on the very edge of human experience, I thought, and surely was nothing with which I could identify.

But earlier this week, upon viewing the remarkable film “Slumdog Millionaire,” twenty years after my Indian experience, I realized that I’d simply been wrong.

That’s the power of this amazing film—the ability to humanize people who live in what seems at first to be an unimaginably inhumane place. As the film opens, a mischievous group of children are playing stick ball on the tarmac at the Mumbai airport–one of the few open areas in this densely populated hut city where they can actually find the room in which to play. When police arrive to chase them away, two of the children delightedly lead the cops on a seeming never-ending pursuit through the labyrinth of narrow corridors in the surprisingly vibrant and colorful community that exists between the hutments.

Dodging the hapless officers by virtue of their small size and agility—and innate knowledge of a random urban landscape that would seem impossible to navigate with any certainty—the two brothers’ merry chase is only ended by a chance encounter with their loving mother, who offers her pledge to the harried officer that the punishment awaiting the boys at her hands is one far worse than anything he could dole out.

But the boys’ mother is not a one-dimensional harsh disciplinarian whose behavior is but a reflection of the harsh conditions of these urban slums. Instead, she is clearly a woman whose love for her sons, and her hopes that they might one day obtain a better life are expressed with an amazing intensity. When the boys lose their mother to cruel circumstances that are so traumatic as to burn themselves into their dreams, it’s also clear that the sense of family obligation, self-worth, and dogged perseverance she instilled in them are a tangible undying source of love and strength that allows them to survive intact despite the many horrors that still lie ahead.

The film revolves around these two brothers, and a third orphaned young girl whom they permit into their makeshift shelter one rainy night. Together, they constitute the Three Musketeers—a title they adopted during the brief earlier period in their lives when their mother made sure that they were able to attend school. As harsh as the setting may be, the personalities of these three young children shine through in ways that makes it clear that they’re kids not all that different from kids living anywhere. In fact, their child-like ingenuity, and sense of adventure makes them at times seem more like an Eastern Hemisphere, modern-day version of Huck and Tom and Becky, than it does three children living out an alien existence. As an audience member, you can’t help but care about these kids, can’t help but empathize with what they’re facing, can’t help but hope against hope that they find an escape from this awful existence.

One other aspect of their journey was extremely illuminating for me, in filling in a gap about an aspect of the Indian urban scene I’d known about, but found too horrible to contemplate. As our cab proceeded into the city on that first day in Mumbai (then known as Bombay), we were deluged at every stop light by gangs of children, rapping their knuckles against our windows, begging for handouts. Our hosts explained that any impulse we had at generosity would have been misplaced.

These kids were part of gangs organized by pimp-like shadowy figures who had kidnapped many of them, and forced them into this life. Many of the kids were severely crippled, in this case a politically incorrect, but frighteningly accurate term. These slaveowner/pimps, we learned, would actually blind the children, and decapitate their limbs as a means of making the children into objects of pity that would much more effectively attract tourist dollars. I realized now in retrospect, that our hosts’ admonitions to ignore the begging children and not to give them money, was not only a matter of doing the right thing by refusing to support this slave trade—it also allowed me a way to avoid thinking about the horror that each child had likely been forced to endure. Through the eyes of the children, in scenes filmed at a rural camp where kidnapped children are brought into the trade, this film conveys this awful reality in a way that more than once caused me to turn away from the screen.

And that’s where I’d better stop, before giving away other important plot points and unexpected twists in this intense drama, which takes you on a harsh yet humane journey that I could never hope to adequately describe here….

Not everyone is going to like this film, let alone stomach its plot’s more horrific developments. But for those who can ride out the horror, this film might also offer those viewers an important rite of passage, in challenging our views about the nature of the world’s people living in extreme poverty.

This film is fiction. In fact, in many of its scenes, it is largely a joy-filled fairy tale—filled with almost magical happenings, and drawing the viewer into the story in way that holds out hope for a fairy-tale like happy ending. In other ways, like Grimm’s Fairy Tales, it is an evocation of the darkest realities of human nature.

But it’s the children at the heart of this picture that do nothing less than transform one’s heart and mind in ways that make you realize that there’s nothing inherently inferior about those born into extreme poverty—they feel and love and think and grieve and hunger for something better in life just like all of us. For two hours, we’re walking in the shoes of these beautiful children, and nothing about their environment makes us care one iota less about what happens to them.

Never again will I reflect back on the life-changing journey I took to India twenty years ago, thinking of those hutments as a buzzing hive of emptiness, and unimaginable existence. Like all great films, this film has filled in an important gap for me—by opening up my understandings to a world I could never have imagined could exist. Unwittingly, I’d been living a life filled with the incredulity reflected in the film’s depictions of skeptical police that anything or anyone of value could come out of this harsh life of the slums.

History is full of attempts by the powers-that-be to dehumanize a people as a means of avoiding our communal responsibility to create a world in which such horrors would not occur. Those of us who believe in global social justice must constantly seek to counter those dehumanizing forces with authentic storytelling that reminds us of our shared humanity.

In “Slumdog Millionaire,” the horrors of daily life are real. But so are the endearing personalities of the protagonists of this film. As seen through the eyes of these children, this is a film that questions so many basic assumptions that it can’t help but change the way we view other people, no matter how desperate their existence may appear on the surface.

Cultural differences are important and must be respected. At the same time, the very real challenges associated with poverty must never be denied, nor accepted as inevitable. Yet none of this is possible until we take a moment to ponder all that we hold in common as human beings, recognizing that it’s the common threads amidst those constituting the glorious tapestry of humanity that define our interwoven destiny as inhabitants of this earth.

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