Oscar-Nominated 'Slumdog Millionaire' Under Scrutiny Slumdog Millionaire, recently nominated for an Oscar, depicts life in the slums of Mumbai, India and is described as a "must see" by many of the top film critics. But given the subject matter, some question whether the movie's producers have a moral obligation to alleviate the social ills they show on screen.
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Oscar-Nominated 'Slumdog Millionaire' Under Scrutiny

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Oscar-Nominated 'Slumdog Millionaire' Under Scrutiny

Oscar-Nominated 'Slumdog Millionaire' Under Scrutiny

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After sweeping four awards at the Golden Globes and with another 10 Academy Award nominations, "Slumdog Millionaire" is no longer the underdog at the box office. The film follows the rags-to-riches story of Jamal Malik, a kid who grows up in the slums of India and winds up on the Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire."

And while the film is at its core a tale of triumph and a love story, the power of the film, I think it's fair to say, comes from its very sharp-eyed depiction of poverty, corruption and abuse on the streets of India, especially as experienced by its youngest and most vulnerable people. And that vivid depiction of India's underbelly, as well as the film's success, has led some to wonder whether the film's producer should do more to alleviate the conditions it showed so clearly.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've caught Rochona Majumdar. She's an assistant professor at the University of Chicago. She teaches the history of Indian cinema; and Satyam Khanna, who blogs for the Center for American Progress on their Think Progress blog. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

Professor ROCHONA MAJUMDAR (Assistant Professor, History of Indian Cinema, University of Chicago): Thank you.

Mr. SATYAM KHANNA (Blogger, Think Progress): Thank you.

MARTIN: Satyam, if you'd start. On the blog, Think Progress, you wrote specifically about a controversy surrounding the child actors who portray the stars of the film as children and how much they allegedly got paid. What's the story there?

Mr. KHANNA: Well, there was a report in the media saying that the children who starred in the film were paid something along the lines of $700 per year, maybe up to $2,000 a year, and they're still living in poverty. One lives under a plastic tent; the other lives basically in the same slum that she was growing up in. And the question is, they acted in this film and the film made a lot of money, but they're still living in the same conditions.

MARTIN: When you wrote about this, the producers gave their own take on this question of how much the kids were paid and what, in fact, they are trying to do for the kids. Briefly, they say the children had never attended school, and in consultation with their parents we agreed that this would be our priority. They say that since June of 2008 and at their expense, both kids have been attending school and that moneys have been set aside for their basic living costs and health care and other emergencies. And as an incentive for them to continue to attend school, a substantial lump sum will be released to each child when they complete their studies. And they also say that the wage they were paid is substantially more than the average adult in the community place. But professor, what's your take on this?

Prof. MAJUMDAR: I also followed the reports in the British media, and most recently I actually saw an interview with Rubina Sheikh, the little girl who plays Latika, and she does live in a slum, and her parents claim that she was not paid enough. But apparently, there's a company that was contracted by Danny Boyle and Colson to get the child artists, and there's some discrepancy here between reports where the director and producers claim, in fact, that they have paid the company, and it's a company that hasn't actually channelized the money to the right recipient. There is no way for me to verify the truth claims here. I mean, I don't know who's right, who's wrong in terms of the money that's been given out and so on.

But while I agree with you a depiction of the film that, yes, it does an excellent job, you know, of this very realist portrayal of life in the slums and the brutality and the brutalization of children and so on, it's ultimately also a fantasy, and it's a story in some ways of hope, which I think accounts for its success in the sort of dismal global climate all around.

And the other thing is, look, it's got all of us talking. I mean, this is not the first slum film that was ever made. There have been numerous films that had been made on Indian slums but none that has actually evoked this kind of a response globally. And I think that that's important, so instead of sort of making the director or producer accountable in terms of having to pay exact sums of money, I think we should appreciate the service that they have rendered in making this an issue, a talking point.

MARTIN: That's an important point. I'm going to come back to that point, but professor, to your point, the film is quite vivid. For me, I don't know about for you as a parent, quite hard to watch, I think, in many ways. The way it depicted the circumstances that the kids were in, I found very evocative. I just want to play a short clip where the kids are - I don't want to give away the whole plot, of course, but these kids are living in some dire conditions in part because they have been orphaned due to an episode of sectarian violence, and that leaves those circumstances even worse than it was before.

And here's a clip where this man who claimed to be with an adoption agency actually ends up abusing the kids. Two boys escape, but a few years later they come face to face with him again. Let's hear it. Here it is.

(Soundbite of movie "Slumdog Millionaire")

Unidentified Actor: Hello again, Jamal, Salim. I never forget a face, and (unintelligible) especially one that I own. You really thought you could just walk in and take my prize away? Latika, come. Have you any idea how much this little virgin is worth...

MARTIN: And we know what's going to happen here, and it's not something that easy to contemplate. And the scene is one of many that you see over and over again, a film about the awful circumstances...

Prof. MAJUMDAR: Right.

MARTIN: That some kids find themselves in. I don't know how you are reacting to this. I think many people want to do something, the question is who - and Satyam, I wanted to ask each of you, and professor - who should do something in response to something like this? Whose responsibility is it?

Mr. KHANNA: If I'm not mistaken, I don't remember seeing at the end of the film anything about, well, here's how you can help. And I've seen plenty of films where that's a possibility, where they give you - well, here's a Web address where you can donate or something like that and...

MARTIN: You mean a feature film or a documentary? This isn't a documentary.

Mr. KHANNA: Right. But I think there certainly could have been something done as far as even some kind of advertising campaign - if you've seen "Slumdog Millionaire," this message from the producers, and please donate. And I think that would have been certainly a good PR effort on their part. But I think that certainly more could have been done to address the needs of the kids in the community, and I think that that was something that they fell short on.

MARTIN: Is that really their job?

Mr. KHANNA: It's not their requirement, certainly not. But they've gone to great lengths to portray poverty in India, and certainly these guys had an idea of the message they want to portray, is that the conditions in India are extremely poor, especially in the slums of Bombay. And I think they certainly could have done something more.

MARTIN: Professor, what do you think? What's your take on this?

Prof. MAJUMDAR: Well, Michel, I would agree with you. I mean, the first thing to remember is that this wasn't a docudrama. It was a feature film. And a feature film that wasn't only a story of brutalization. It was actually a story of triumph over brutalization. And the clip that you played for us, it's a heart-rending scene, as are so many others in the film. But I think when you walk out of there, you also - it's a story, I think, of human will and the will to triumph over these terrible conditions. I mean, you know, child abuse and the treatment of children is not new. Children have suffered immensely after communal riots and the kind of sectarian violence that you saw in the film. The government is aware of it. There are numerous non-governmental organizations that do work. So why suddenly sort of train our guns at Danny Boyle?

MARTIN: Well...

Prof. MAJUMDAR: That's the part that I do not understand. I mean, I don't understand the media hoopla about, you know, suddenly it becomes his responsibility to do something for the kids because he shot a film with them?

MARTIN: Satyam?

Mr. KHANNA: I understand your point. I think in this case, the kids were certainly a big part of the success of the film.

Prof. MAJUMDAR: Indeed.

Mr. KHANNA: And it doesn't seem like they see - they received due pay. They're earning three times the adult salary in Bombay, which I think the average salary in India is something like $800 a year. So, $2400 a year for working in a big global film, and they're still living in the same conditions. I think that the filmmakers or the people who were in charge of the kids could have been more conscientious.

MARTIN: Do you think that there's a special duty to care for children or for children particularly in dire conditions? Do you think that in hiring people to do a certain job that there's an additional responsibility to change their lives?

Mr. KHANNA: I can't imagine that the filmmakers thought that 500 pounds a year would be sufficient to provide for their needs and their family needs because their family was obviously poor, too. So, it seems that they weren't given the proper share that they needed. And the filmmakers either weren't aware of that or intentionally didn't give that.

Prof. MAJUMDAR: You know, I deeply appreciate the point that Satyam is making. In fact, it would be very nice to actually have more people like Satyam mobilize to produce conditions which would be better for our future generations. Having said that - this may be a leap, this comparison - but you know, did anybody ever sort of look to Charles Dickens and say that, well, what have you given back to the community even though you depicted such a vivid story of a child's miserable life in "Oliver Twist"? And yet - I mean, it was a service that one never forgets.

Now, I'm not comparing "Slumdog Millionaire" to "Oliver Twist," but it might be helpful to think along those lines because for tons of people who never even gave a second thought to the slums of Bombay, they're talking about it.

The other thing that I don't like in the criticisms that are being made of Boyle and Colson and their responsibility to the children, blah, blah, blah, I don't like the element of abjectness that it puts the Indian slum, the Indian slum dweller, the Indian child. I mean, I don't like that position of abjectness that it seems to put them into. And it's a kind of palming off of responsibility, I think. We're all responsible for them, not just the director and producer. Frankly, if anything, they've done more for them than we have.

MARTIN: Satyam, is this film - how could I put this - do you think it's a net positive or a negative?

Mr. KHANNA: I think it's hard to answer definitively yes or no the question of what's net. I think for the children, based on the article that I've read, the children have said that they're in worse conditions now. So for them, I think you could say it's a net negative. Maybe they've had some local stardom. For me, certainly, a net positive for the reasons that the professor was saying, that it's raised awareness through my friends and my peers of the conditions in my home country.

MARTIN: Professor, what do you think? Final thought for you because...

Prof. MAJUMDAR: I would say that it's a net positive because think about it this way. Had it not been for the film, would we even have heard Rubina Sheikh and her parents speak? Never. You know, they were languishing there. They have a voice now. They actually have a voice to make demands for themselves. I think that is a huge positive step.

MARTIN: Rochona Majumdar is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago. She teaches the history of Indian cinema. She joined us from the campus studios there. And Satyam Khanna writes for the blog, Think Progress. He joined me in our studios here in Washington. Thank you both so much.

Prof. MAJUMDAR: Thank you.

Mr. KHANNA: Thank you.

MARTIN: If you want to read Satyam's piece in its entirety, we have a link on our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And with Tell Me More, the conversation never ends. Now we'd like to hear what you think about all this. Do you think filmmakers have a moral obligation to remedy the social ills they portray? What about journalists, for that matter? Or do you think bringing the stories is a public service in its own right? To tell us more about what you think, you can call our comment line at 202-842-3522. That's 202-842-3522. Please remember to tell us your name or you can always go to our Web site at npr.org and blog it out.

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