Southern Slumdog

Today’s is a guest post by Sirensongs, who blogs at Feringhee: The India Diaries. In this post, she shares her opinion about the recent controversy over the movie Slumdog Millionnaire. Sirensongs moved to India in 2002 to complete her six years’ study of the ancient temple dance, Bharatanatyam. Apprenticing with a revered master in Madras, she learned a great deal; however, most of it was not about dance. Disillusionment and childhood memories of “Tintin In Tibet” have led her to adventures throughout India, Nepal & Sri Lanka. She currently works as a writer in Kathmandu where she also studies the Buddhist ritual dance, Charya Nrtya.


That Slumdawg won’t hunt

Last time, I wrote something about the widespread defensive attitude (not 100%, mind you) of Indians toward the success of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. I also left some rather impatient comments on another blog. In case you’ve been asleep for a few weeks, lotta folks are huffing and puffing about Slumdog‘s portrayal of Indian slum life, mostly because it’s too accurate. (Wonder what the slum dwellers themselves think, has anyone asked them? All the comments I have read are from upper crust writers.)

I can’t write with authority about what it’s like to be Indian and see a film that shows so much of the country’s dark side to the world. But I have a comparable experience. I do know what it’s like to be an American Southerner and see Hollywood films, famous ones, award-winning ones, represent my “country” (we almost were another country, fought a war over it, remember?) to the world.

There were, and still are, lots of negative stereotypes about my country (the South). When I moved to New York in 1981, I was asked derogatory questions like “Do you even wear shoes down there?” and “where do you live, a trailer park?”

And even,

“Did your ancestors own slaves??”

“Everyone down there belongs to the Klan, right?”

…and from an Indian girl, “If you wear your bindi down there you’ll get shot at.” (There actually were, in fact, at least 2 “dot-head” murders…I think they were both in Canada.)

The vast majority of Hollywood films about the south – which is where people get these ideas – were made by either Yankees or Californians (same thing, ha). Outsiders. Carpet-baggers. Some were romanticized epics (Gone with the Wind). Later, some consciously tried to redress such romanticism by showing an uglier side (Cold Mountain). Others retold true stories in a condensed, dramatized and only partially “true” way so that important but largely unknown eras in American history would not go unknown by a new generation (ie, Mississippi Burning).

There’s loooots more (Glory, Matewan, Birth of a Nation, To Kill a Mockingbird, Sling Blade, Deliverance, Mandingo, Roots, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Streetcar Named Desire, Forrest Gump… ). Most of the above are full of slow-witted, slow talking hicks and obligatory Klan meeting scenes. Don’t forget television like Andy Griffith Show, Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, Alice, Designing Women, Hee Haw and so on.

My point is this: the vast majority of this media was made by “outsiders.” Some of it (especially the romantic stuff) Southerners appreciated; most of it, they did not. Some of it I personally enjoy; a lot I have mixed feelings about. But even when I didn’t think they got it right, I usually felt the topics (mostly concerning poverty and race history) needed to be discussed.

Usually they didn’t cast Southerners in the parts; since pretty much anyone can “do” a southern accent, right? Just sound real dumb. (Marlon Brando’s accent was dreadful in Streetcar and he was nominated for the Oscar.) And – did you ever notice? – Black Americans are all sort of considered by casting directors to somehow be Southern by default. Seeing your homeland represented worldwide, by an outsider, is a sensitive thing. My point is, no one ever, ever questioned the outsider’s right to make such films or shows, whether we liked them or not.

Why do Indians think that they and they alone can give “permission” to someone to discuss or represent their country in media? Besides which, the book on which Slumdog is based was written by an Indian (as Streetcar and Mockingbird were based on books written by Southerners).

I certainly hope no one ever questions the “right” of an NRI or Indian visitor to make a film about the America they perceive, however negative or one-sided the result may be.

Categories: Guest Blogs, International, Movies