Slumdogs, Oscars and Poverty Porn

It was recently announced that two of the child stars of Slumdog Millionaire would be attending the 81st Oscars ceremony on Sunday night.


Joe Morgenstern declared the drama "the film world's first globalized masterpiece." New York Magazine's movie blog predicts that the movie will win Best Picture because of its timely story of an underdog hero who "overcomes a system rigged against him."

But while Slumdog has achieved enormous success in the West, both of the young actors, ten-year-old Azharuddin Ismail and nine-year-old Rubina Ali, still languish in poverty in the slums of Mumbai--along with roughly half of the city's 16 million people. This is one reason the movie has sparked significant controversy in India that has resulted in angry protests among the country's poor. Their main objections stem from the use of "dog" in the title.

"Referring to people living in slums as dogs is a violation of human rights," commented one social activist in a Times UK piece. Other critics accused Slumdog of being "poverty porn'' that "glamourises the squalor of slums and perpetuates Western stereotypes."

Director Danny Boyle responded to these accusations of exploitation, particularly in regards to underpayment of Azharuddin and Rubina, by issuing a statement elaborating the lengths to which the filmmakers have gone to fairly compensate and help take care of the two children.

There were many real-world "slumdogs" who are not upset about the film and view it as an accurate depiction of their problems that Bollywood ignores. They say the underdogs of India deserve to have their story told. 

"People will know about us," tea vendor Ravi Kumar told the Washington Post. "Usually there are only films about rich people. In India, we don't like to see the common man on screen." A volunteer teacher in Mumbai added, "India's wealthy normally wouldn't give a thought to the slums if it weren't for the movie."

The poverty-on-film debate will likely continue. But for now at least, Slumdog Millionaire has people from Bollywood to Hollywood paying rapt attention to the lives of those who toil to keep the world's most populous democracy running.

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