Slumdog Scholars

root - Posted on 23 July 2009

Why Slumdog Millionaire belongs to poor people all over the globe

by Tiny aka Lisa Gray-Garcia/poverty scholar and daughter of Dee

"Don't look away, Jamal" From the shadows a tired and spirit-dead
adult lurked with a bowl of acid ready to burn into the eyes of an
unsuspecting orphan in the Mumbai of Slumdog Millionaire. "a Blind
child can make more money singing on the street," someone whispers
into the night sky. In a seamless filmic second Jamal and his older
brother Salim escape, tricking the omnipresent desperation,
destruction and violence of poverty that lurks at every turn
throughout their young lives. Throughout the whole movie, I
alternately cried and murmured my mama Dee's name, an orphan who like
she would say so many times, was like all orphan children across the
globe, unwanted, unseen, unloved and perhaps worst of all,

Iota by iota, I have lost my life, in faith,/ I've passed this night
dancing on coals,/ I blew away the sleep that was in my eyes,/ I
counted the stars till my finger burned..
lyrics from Jai Ho - one of the theme songs from Slumdog Millionaire

My mama, like Salim and Jamal and the small girl they befriend,
Latika, in the Oscar winning movie, Slumdog Millionaire, by Danny
Boyle was viewed as trash, a bother, or at best, something to profit
off of, by any adults who took the time to notice her, feed her or
shelter her. My mama was the illigimate, unwanted daughter of a
Boricua African immigrant and an Irish teenager. My mama was born in

"You should see that movie Tiny, homeless people here live in luxury
compared to those kids," a hairdresser acquaintance of mine said
referring to Slumdog Millionaire, making me cringe, Oh god no, I
thought, a movie that further creates the myth of "real" poverty
versus the experience of poor people in the US, who just need to get a
job and "pull themselves up by their bootstraps."

There are many different possible critiques of Slumdog Millionaire,
not the least of which is the increased fetishization of South Asian
peoples in poverty, with barely a U2 like, vague critique of poverty
and globalization. Playing to millions of people, who would rather
look to developing countries who have "real poverty" as it is easier,
cleaner, sexier, color-filled, simpler, rather than look in their own
backyard at the thousands of unseen, unheard , houseless and hungry
children and families in the US. Children like I was, at age 11, when
my poor abused mama was unable to silence the screams that lurked in
her head from her brutal childhood after the loss of her last job and
finally succumbed to those screams into complete disability, leaving
us in deep poverty and ongoing houselessness for the duration of my

.... Taste it, taste it, this night is honey,/ Taste it, and keep it,/
It's the heart, the heart is the final limit..

One of PNN's former interns, himself born into wealth in
South Asia, and I discuss this movie constantly, his contention, it
presents a lie about modern day India, That a white man (Danny Boyle) colonized an art form already crafted (Bollywood) and made it from his lens. This is a very serious critique from POOR Magazine's perspective, we actively resist artistic and journalistic transubstantive errors made by default colonizers about cultures not their own. So this leaves me in conflict, because I also believe this movie depicts the reality
of struggling children in deep poverty, the desperation of survival by any means
necessary and the pimping of their poverty, by so-called "saviors" (a murderous "orphanage director" shown preying on the children) better than almost any movie i have ever seen. Then again, maybe I haven't seen enough South-Asian films.

So does this movie about poor folks, poor children, do what almost all
depictions of poor people do and have done since Charles Dickens stories about
poor folks in the ghettos of New York in turn of the century
Amerikkka. Through Dickens' Eurocentric, middle-class lens, he only saw
them as living in "squalor" "being dirty", and living in
"over-crowded" conditions and needing to be at best "cleaned-up" and
worst, "saved". In one stroke of his fountain pen, he stripped them
of their beauty, their power, their heroism, their sprit, language and
culture, resulting in the literary theft of their inherent agency,
and forever setting the narrative tone for other-ness documentations
of communities in poverty as well as the ever-popular to this day,
hygienic metaphors about "cleaning up poor folks".

To insure that more poverty scholars whose voices are intentionally silenced on all issues must less movie critiques get a chance to review this movie and weigh in on the message, POOR Magazine sponsored a movie night for our youth and adult poverty scholars in residence and our students in the Race, Poverty and Media Justice Institute that teaches folks living in poverty revolutionary media and organizing. We do a movie night, both corporate and non-corporate, several times a year as films are just another form of "media" to be read and critiqued by silenced communities. Almost across the board each of them were very impressed and overwhlemed with the movie and its message.

Our post-film discussion led me to conclude, this was a movie about what we at POOR Magazine call poverty
scholars and poverty scholarship, people whose scholarship is rooted
in their lived experience, rather than learned experience. Jamal's
brilliance, his knowledge, was rooted in lived experience. In a series
of flashbacks told to a police officer accusing him of "being a
slum-kid, not capable of that level of intelligence" was at once a
deft story-telling filmic trick but it also acted as a seamless way to
unfold not only Jamal's plight of love lost, his live-based knowledge
but also the undying hope of not only love but youth and humanity

Unlike Dickensian wrong-ness, Slumdog Millionaire was
truly a depiction of the power , sprit and strength of poor children
and families who continue to try, to work, to hope and to dream. In
fact it showed the subtleties of survival of underground economic
strategists, and ghetto scholars everywhere, who like my poor mama
managed to make it by any means necessary

No, I conclude, this is our movie , and the only problem is, other
folks, rich folks, who don't get the terror of endless struggle, the
unconditional and beautiful hope of very poor children, the work ethic
and desperation of poor workers, and poor families, shouldn't be
allowed to see it, Ever. No, we the very poor, need this movie to
remember who we are, the wealth of knowledge we hold, the deep
reality-based knowledge of Poverty Scholarship we all have, and to
remember that no matter how hard it gets, there is still hope, there
is still love and poetry and silliness, and beauty and above all, to
remember the connection between the struggle of people in poverty
across the globe.

.... Come, come my Life, under the canopy,/ Come under the blue
brocade sky!"..
lyrics translated from one of the Oscar winning songs
in Slumdog Millionaire, Jai Ho, by A.R. Rahman


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