For every macabre snake charmer that has appeared inexplicably out of thin air, there are three boys playing soccer in the dirt, clothed in tattered rags. And if there isn’t an unsolicited tragic backstory ascribed to an illiterate rickshaw driver, then the peculiarly strange slums—littered with gasoline lights, will make up for it. From unrealistically unintelligible accents to curry overkill, Hollywood seems to sift through the most misrepresenting stereotypes to see which facet of a “white man’s re-imagined India” can be exploited to garner the most sympathy, recognition, and nominations—resulting in implications that transcend the sphere of film.
The most prominently gushed-over film by western audiences is none other than the American-made, rags-to-riches tale, Slumdog Millionaire. A film that has won itself 10 Oscar nominations 10 years ago, labeling it a sweeping international success with an unprecedented amount of fame. Putting aside its glamorization of poverty and dehumanizing obsession with squalor, (Slumdog? Dog?) this film is the unsettling epitome of how India’s portrayal in Western media is pure exploitation—a hackneyed understanding of the circumstances.
The child actors in this film, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail and Rubina Ali, who not only played extrusive roles, but live in legitimate, unromanticized poverty themselves, were promised funds, education, and an assured ticket out of the slums of Bandra—as indemnity for starring in the hit movie. Unsurprisingly, the parents were never given the details of these seemingly nonexistent trust funds, leading to a plethora of protests and lawsuits. Telegraph journalist and author, Dean Nelson, claims “Azharuddin is in fact worse off than he was during filming: his family’s illegal hut was demolished by the local authorities and he now sleeps under a sheet of plastic tarpaulin with his father, who suffers from tuberculosis.”
“My son has taken on the world and won. I am so proud of him but I want more money,” Azharuddin’s father, Mohammed Ismail, pleads. “They promised me a new house but it hasn’t happened. I’m still in the slum.” There lies a tragic irony in this reality: while the once impoverished protagonist of the film receives his happy ending through the rescue of a foreign—white—hand, the same failed to happen for the actual lives that this movie highlights.
“They promised me a new house but it hasn’t happened. I’m still in the slum.” —Mohammed Ismail
The eventuality of this one-sided portrayal in Western culture is that people can’t help but foster misconceptions about what India is really like. Comedian and Daily Show host Trevor Noah was recently under fire for making a harmless quip regarding the tensions between Pakistan and India over the disputed land of Kashmir. Conflict escalated two weeks ago, when the two countries carried out air raids for the first time in 30 years, raising unease over the bearings of their nuclear artilleries. Noah mimics a Bollywood-esque dance number while claiming that if the two countries were to go to war, it would be “the most entertaining war.”
Except, they have gone to war before. Three times that is. Since gaining independence from Britain in 1947, millions of lives have been caught in the ongoing crossfire—a disturbing truth that has led activists like Swara Bhasker to criticize Noah: “War is not funny or entertaining, Hindi is not gibberish,” she points out. “Your stereotype of Indo-Pak is ignorant and racist […] human lives were lost and are at stake.” Has a problematic exposure to foreign culture hindered with our political ability to sensitize war and see poverty for what it really is?
Again @Trevornoah pls drop this America centric condescension. the topic of the conflict was the ONLY thing trending in India & Pak this past week & numerous liberal Indians & Pakistanis petitioned their govt.s to de-escalate the conflict & sued 4 peace. This is not about YOU! https://t.co/9hCui1jz6v
— Swara Bhasker (@ReallySwara) March 3, 2019
Even if India never receives the accurate portrayal it deserves, at least its poor knows that their smiles are loved. “I don’t mean to be glib about it, but you can see the poorest of the poor in India and there is still a smile on a face,” Donald Trump Jr. said in an interview with CNBC’s Indian affiliate. “It’s a different spirit that you don’t see in other parts of the world […] I know some of the most successful people in the world, and some of them are the most miserable people in the world.” Well, at least he wasn’t glib about it.
"You go through a town…. you can see the poorest of the poor and there's still a smile on their face."
Donald Trump Jr. arrives in India on a week-long visit to help attract buyers for his family's luxury apartments. pic.twitter.com/wPHyBQpwi7
— NBC News (@NBCNews) February 20, 2018
In an era where a considerable portion of the American population is comprised of Indians, it is imperative that more are included in the storytelling process—a way to grant audiences stories that actually mirror their life, rather than the white-washed, Baljeet-from-Phineas-and-Ferb version of it. And as for leveling the playing field in American politics, the status quo already showcases sufficient progress—with a record 60 Indian-American candidates running for local, state, and federal office—including Tulsi Gabbard and Kamala Harris, who recently announced their presidential campaign.
The panacea for poverty is not a short-termed process, but its distorted depictions and exploited spotlighting fails to galvanize the required rapport. Until then, this vulnerable situation will only curry on.