Holy hell are the Mumbai slums a miserable place. That’s the important lesson we learned when we watched the documentary fairy tale Slumdog Millionaire. And now we’d like to fetishize the film’s young stars.
In the days since the film won a raft of Oscars and generated smiley goodwill across Hollywood, there’s been a surge of followup stories, like the ones about the understandably tired young boy being publicly beaten by his father for being tired. Or photos of the the girl who played youngest Latika bestride some wooden planks near her home, standing over trash and beside an open sewer. Or reports that the children are miserable at school back home, that it’s been a return to terrifying drudgery after a brief, swoony stint as film royalty. And it’s all lapped up, for the same reason why the movie soared when the little ones were covered in shit or getting blinded, but kind of sagged when they were grown-up and seemingly well-fed and employed. The horror is fascinating, oddly thrilling. Reflexively relieving. Exposing ourselves to the misery inoculates us against our general, day-to-day apathy. Spend a few seconds scanning a blog post and feeling bad for distant strangers, and your job is done.
Yes we should care about, and be exposed to, the plight of these kids—real Bombabies plucked from the airport slums for true cinematic veracity. Even more urgently, of course “We” should keep a keen eye out to make sure that these youngsters (and their families) are not exploited, that they enjoy a fair portion of the movie’s financial successes, etc. The group was recently given houses and money trusts, which is the sad kind of good that is good because they didn’t have “real” houses or trusts before, and sad because there’s a certain reckless abandon in suddenly giving someone who has less than nothing a whole lotta something. It’s a bit dangerous, and needs to be done carefully. Like people suffering from extreme hunger or thirst, the flashy new Having ought to be introduced delicately, lest the whole thing topple over onto itself.
And ‘delicate’ is not exactly how I would describe this new, splashy pity. The hand-wringing infotainment articles and Sally Struthersy “bugs on their mouths!” photos do bring attention to an important crisis, for sure. (Of course there’s the knee-jerk, lazy, leftie cynic reaction: “Um, duhh. It took a silly movie to make you aware of the fact that there are poors in India? How sheltered can you be?”—a sentiment that does have an important (albeit annoying) grain of truth to it, but is not really the issue at hand). But they also tend to incite a reaction of “Won’t somebody do something!!!” (from myself included) without any real encouragement for follow-through, except to demand slightly undefinable things from movie makers. Because, I guess, the movie industry is, for all of its excesses, as faraway a place as the Mumbai slums. Those two distant bodies will help each other and we’ll just sit back and watch the bow get tied.
And maybe it will! At least for this small set of children. Which, of course, if done right, is a good thing. But there’s still the larger issues of us finding celebrity, and strange comfort, in misery. In deeming someone a special kind of sufferer. Are we creating a face for the entirety of the problem, thus making sure the proper channels are communicating, the right heads are turning? Or are we simply weaving a narrative in which we, all of us who saw and supported the movie and now read the horror stories with tingly regret, are singling out a unique few for rescue; for deliverance from a group of people with whom they no longer—they’ve now been in a movie that we liked, after all—belong?
It begins to seem like we’re actually just fretting over characters from a movie. People we’d like to imagine safely satisfied, so we can keep on with our business, confident that there’s been some vague and impossible happy ending. Which I guess is just how fairy tales work.
Image via AP