04 March 2009

Dharavi, etcetera

"The further analysis moves away from the center of the Third World
City, the thicker the epistemological fog." ~ Mike Davis

India. Mumbai. 2006. A girl walks along a water pipe in the Industrial
Area of Dharavi. Although it functions as a throroughfare through this
area of the slum, the water in the pipes is headed for the more affluent
southern areas of the city. Dharavi is one of Mumbai's biggest and
longest standing slums. Home to somewhere between 600 000 and one
million people, it is a beehive of recycling and manufacturing industries.
However, Dharavi sits on prime real estate right in the heart of the
booming megapolis, and is in close vicinity to the new Bandra-Kurla
Complex, a new financial hub. Dharavi is now scheduled for
redevelopment, meaning everything in the slum, for good and bad,
is set to be demolished.
Photograph & Caption © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum.

I have not seen Slumdog Millionaire the multi-Oscar winning film. I plan to see it though and, in the interim, have been reading about it a bit. Here are a few comments that popped out at me ~ you'll notice a convergence.
"What disturbs me about the Oscar achievement is the collateral fragrance it spreads around our mushrooming slums. We are told Dharavi is a slum of vibrancy, enterprise, the triumph of the human spirit and a model of inter-communal living. Another collateral boon: superpower India has at last come to terms with its penury. It is comfortable with its poverty. If you will pardon my French, that’s bullshit!

Slums, whatever artistic gloss you put on them, are ugly, dark, squalid, crime-infested locations—a sign of a failed state rather than a shining one. However many Oscars India might collect, we should never lend legitimacy and romance to scars which should make us hang our heads in shame. There is nothing nice about a slum, even a five-star one like Dharavi, and the Indian state must avoid flirting with the myth that a slum is a beautiful place, inhabited by beautiful people doing beautiful things—an example to the rest of the country of how hard work and honest toil can make the rags-to-riches story possible." ~ Vinod Mehta

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"The [Congress Party] claims that instead of India Shining it has presided over India ‘Achieving’. Achieving what? In the case of Slumdog, India’s greatest contribution, certainly our political parties’ greatest contribution is providing an authentic, magnificent backdrop of epic poverty, brutality and violence for an Oscar-winning film to be shot in. So now that too has become an achievement? Something to be celebrated? Something for us all to feel good about? Honestly, it’s beyond farce.

And here’s the rub: Slumdog Millionaire allows real-life villains to take credit for its cinematic achievements because it lets them off the hook. It points no fingers, it holds nobody responsible. Everyone can feel good. And that’s what I feel bad about. [. . .]

Politically, the film de-contextualises poverty – by making poverty an epic prop, it disassociates poverty from the poor. It makes India’s poverty a landscape, like a desert or a mountain range, an exotic beach, god-given, not man-made." ~ Arundhati Roy

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“But it's also clear that Boyle's version of the third world, complete with fetidness and depravity, is particularly gratifying to our UK and US sensibilities. Why? Because it grossly oversimplifies poverty and our relationship with it.

After watching the film, viewers are left to infer that slums are horrid, rancid places because of beggar masters, Hindu zealots and Muslim gangs. Of course these forces play their role in perpetuating misery. But in reality, slums are an international problem caused by an intricate set of entities: corrupt government officials, gargantuan multinational corporations and suspect IMF structural adjustment programs.

Playing it safe, Boyle doesn't implicate any of these entities. As a result, his movie does allow us to believe that we have been responsible global citizens by engaging with the intensity of third world slums. We in the audience even feel genuine sympathy for destitution. But at no point do we have to forsake the delusion that abject poverty and inequity are strictly foreign things for which we share no culpability.” ~ Hirsh Sawhney
I suppose these responses to the film are not really surprising. (Nor, I suppose, are the resentful, self-satisfied replies that Sawhney got at The Guardian.) And perhaps it is misguided to expect a movie to actually pay attention to the big picture - you know, to causes and culpability and such things.

That leads me to turn to Jonas Bendiksen's remarkable The Places We Live which is an attempt to capture something of the lives people who reside in slums actually lead. Here is how he describes the project and his approach to it on the Magnum blog:

"In 2005, I started work on The Places We Live, a project about urban poverty and slums. For three years, I visited dozens of families in four slums around the world.

The Places We Live was not a search for finding the absolute extremes of urban poverty—I wasn't looking for the dirties spot, the poorest hovels or the most crime-ridden street corner. My task was to find how people normalize these dire situations. How they build dignity and daily lives in the midst of very challenging living conditions.

In the project, I asked someone from each family to "tell me about life around here". Since I do not speak either Spanish, Swahili, Indonesian, Hindi or Marathi, I had one rule-of-thumb during the recordings: As long as the subject talked, I didn't interrupt to get translations of what they were saying. Only when I got transcripts of the recordings months later did I see the wide spectrum of stories told. For me, the process was a sort of protection from projecting too much of my own preconceptions of what slum life involves—and meant the project had to be interactive and collaborative."

Insofar as Bendiksen is concerned not with causes and culpability - to say nothing of resistance* - but with how people who are engulfed in slums make a life there, he does not address the political issues that Mehta, Roy, and Sawnhey raise. That was not his aim. But as the caption above (also lifted from Bendiksen's blog post) makes clear, the story is incomplete if we do not attend to the factors and forces that will destroy Dharavi, precisely because those are the very forces and factors that, in the first place, have engulfed the slum residents and against which they struggle to make their lives. Where will the residents go when Dharavi is "redeveloped"? There is no need to romanticize life there now in order to conclude that displaced residents will end up inhabiting a place even more shrouded in epistemological fog. Without attention to causes and culpability and resistance, then, some future Bendiksen will have to begin from scratch if she hopes to extend the vision of rich denizens of the developed world to the poor and distant.
* I will set aside the question, and that is all it is, of whether perhaps slum dwellers only adopt individual strategies for coping with their environments. If so we might at least have to complicate our standard views about the struggle for human dignity against adversity in order to recognize the politics that exists in the world. I've complained about related issues here before.

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Blogger 2:20 said...

Maybe I'm a mere wanna-be intellectual (or perhaps just a decadent one) to think that art for art's sake is one of the small stuff of "don't sweat the small stuff" fame that we shouldn't worry so much over, especially when the world offers us art for serious politics' sake and just plain ol' unadulterated politics on a daily basis. The film, after all, doesn't claim to be a documentary. It's a rags-to-riches love story with a Bollywood dance scene at the end. How idealistic and necessarily naive can you get with a film, if not this way?! As far as I see it, a spoonful of idealism and naivete makes the medicine of reality go down. In other words, it's not like we're not taking the medicine. We're taking it, all right -- and every day to boot!! If the unexamined life is not worth living, then can't such an unworthy or unbearable life also hold true for the fastidiously & painstakingly examined life? I refuse to feel like a horrible, irresponsible, or unthinking world-citizen for having enjoyed this film immensely.
Let them eat popcorn!

12 March, 2009 15:56  

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