‘Slumdog’ non-millionaires

Thanks to Marian Yalini for pointing out today’s article on the compensation paid to the two stunning child stars of “Slumdog Millionaire”  (so far, less than $5000 total, for a movie that is making hundreds of millions of dollars).

When I first saw the film and wrote about it here, I wondered what was up. The children made the film into the incredible success it is now; by comparison, the adult actors were far less compelling. But the huge power gap between the filmmakers and the children whose stories they were aiming to tell seemed like an obvious place to ask questions about exploitation, compensation, and the ethics of making art.

Now it looks like the media is catching up and asking questions about the story behind the magic curtain. Even assuming the filmmakers are trying their best to be fair, there is such a tragic gap between a liberal, First World idea of “fairness,” and a sense of actual equality.

So the filmmakers argue the pay was generous: for the two stars, 30 days of child labor was paid more than an annual wage for an adult from the same community (most do manual or domestic labor). Plus the kids are now enrolled in school, with a “lump sum” promised when they come of age, though their parents claim not to know how much money that involves. (No word on what the children playing minor roles, some of whom were incredible, were paid.)

But what about comparing these young actors’ pay with the wages of the people actually doing equivalent work — that is, the other actors in the film?  Typically the star of a major movie gets both “fixed” and “contingent” pay:  a certain amount up front, and a certain percentage if the film makes a lot of money.

Of course, that doesn’t happen just because the filmmakers feel like sharing their profits.  It happens when there’s a level playing field: when an actor, especially a child actor, is being represented by an agent who is skilled in negotiating his or her best interests.

That kind of fairness is a lot less likely to happen if the child is being represented by a parent who doesn’t speak English and is laying ill with tuberculosis under a plastic tarp in the middle of the world’s largest slum.

I feel uneasy about Hollywood and Bollywood for so many reasons, and I don’t quite know why but I’ve never been able to take movies as “all in good fun.” Maybe it’s that I lack the capacity to suspend my disbelief; I want to be able to believe what I’m seeing. It’s unsettling for an experience that seems so real to turn out to be false, not on a literal narrative level, but on an ethical one.

Today’s wee glimpse of the “Slumdog” backstory illuminates a truth about the grinding and relentless nature of systemic poverty in Mumbai and elsewhere, in a way that the film, with its glossy violence, only pretends to do.

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