Open Questions

Open Questions: The Tricky Business Of Poverty Cinema

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The "poverty porn" problem: A man in actual India walks by a poster depicting movie India. Is there a problem here? Pal Pillai/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Pal Pillai/AFP/Getty Images

As the Slumdog Millionaire awards train speeds along, with a (well-deserved) Screen Actors Guild Award bestowed on the whole cast on Sunday night, what might normally be a backlash against the movie itself (as almost always happens when acclamation begins to pile up) is taking the form of a lot of questions about whether the movie is, in the words you'll see most often, "poverty porn."

If you haven't followed this debate, you can start with this L.A. Times piece, in which an Indian film professor says that the movie is "a white man's imagined India." For a stronger negative view, try this.

It's not just the movie itself, either. Even before the film, you could take a so-called "poverty tour" of Mumbai's actual slums — and the "slum tourism" industry has seen a big boost since the release of the film, in case what you saw on screen didn't make enough of an impression.

Interestingly, I've had this debate with people before, because before I saw intense images of Mumbai poverty in the high-culture context of an Oscar-nominated movie, I saw them in the thoroughly pop-culture context of The Amazing Race, which has filmed wrenching episodes in India in more than one of its world-traveling seasons. And when those episodes aired, there was inevitably a message-board debate about staring at poverty; filming disabled children panhandling from passing cars. The line between exploitation and the shedding of light on things the audience might otherwise never see is a tough one to draw.

I'm very interested in opinions on this question. Real poverty as part of a not-very-real story; an unsolved crisis as an element of fantasy. On the one hand, people are more aware than before of poverty in India in a way that may be more vivid; on the other..."slum tourism" sounds grotesque and creepy to my ear. What do you think?

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