‘Slumdog’: Don’t just watch, do something

_45501962_slumdogkids_afp226bLong after the Oscar parties fade into tomorrow’s hangover, the reality of the suffering portrayed in “Slumdog Millionaire” will persist.  If the film moved you and you want to know, “Why isn’t anyone DOING anything about this horrible situation?” … well, maybe someone is. And maybe that someone could be you.  Read on for scenes from the movie, the corresponding reality, and what’s being done about it.


movie: Jamal rescues a pre-teen Latika from a brothel where she is forced to dance for older men.

reality: Hundreds of thousands of girls are trafficked into prostitution in India, with Mumbai’s red-light district being one of the largest and most brutal in the world.  I give to the Global Fund for Women, an amazing U.S.-based foundation that funds grassroots groups for girls and women around the world, with a special focus on trafficking issues.  The groups they fund work to free girls from prostitution; give them options for physical, emotional, and economic recovery; and prevent girls from being sold or kidnapped into the trade in the first place.  Learn more about traffickingdonate now or shop your values.


movie:  Poor children hustle to make ends meet, work for unscrupulous characters, and don’t go to school.

reality:  Elimination of child labor is tough organizing work that has to be done child by child, neighborhood by neighborhood, community by community.  Moving children from hustling, begging, and informal labour  into schools also requires empowering their caretakers through programs such as micro-loans supporting small-scale entrepreneurialism by women.  Hand in Hand is an India-based non-profit that works to end child labor in rural Tamil Nadu and “aims at building self-reliance of disadvantaged groups by alleviating poverty through sustained income generating programmes.”  Read a BBC article about the work of Hand in Hand or  visit the organization’s website.

movie:  Poop scene, women washing clothes in public pool.
reality: Yep, sewage and water are not sexy issues but they are huge.  Informal settlements such as Dharavi, though they are often referred to as slums, are larger than most cities in the world — yet basic services are lacking. Lack of access to clean water and sewage leads to poor health outcomes for children and adults.  The Society for Human and Environmental Development (SHED) works on these important issues in Dharavi; the writing on the website is a bit random and hard to wade through, but here’s a much better article on their work.

movie:  People climb on  garbage heaps, picking through refuse and living there.
reality:  Yes, this is how some of the poorest Indians eke out a living.  ACORN International’s Dharavi Project is working to organize rag pickers and waste collectors (those children climbing the garbage piles in the movie) in Dharavi.  The international wing of ACORN is affiliated with the U.S. ACORN “community organizers” who were subject of a manufactured controversy during the Obama campaign. Both ACORNs do amazing, from-the-ground-up community organizing that aims to empower the disempowered to advocate for their own rights and make needed changes in their own community, rather than take a top-down “charity” approach.

movie:  Children of the Dharavi slum go through all kinds of shit, no adults help them.

reality: yeah, children of Dharavi go through all kinds of shit.  The adults and organizations around them are severely under-funded to meet the need. Maybe that’s where we in the privileged West can make a contribution, if we educate ourselves a little bit. So in addition to the organizations above, here are few more groups and resources:

SNEHA, the Society of Nutrition, Education & Health Action, was formed in 1999 “by a group of concerned doctors and social workers to address the special needs of women and children in urban slums.” Here’s an article about their Kishori Project in Dharavi: “In Asia’s largest slum, the Kishori project is introducing young girls to reproductive healthcare, pregnancy care, HIV/AIDS and more. As added inducement, low cost trainings in computers and tailoring are drawing them to the centre for a chance to earn and save money.”
“Slumdog Millionaire” actor and Bollywood star Anil Kapoor has donated his entire fee from the movie to a children’s charity called Plan India.  Article here, Plan India website here.

Dharavi.org is a multimedia wiki website designed to gather information, images, and ideas on Dharavi in Mumbai. Specifically, it offers a space to discuss the Dharavi Redevelopment Project and its alternatives.


*DO YOU KNOW of an organization, site, or resource that should be on this list?  Please post a comment on the blog, or email me and I’ll update the list.

**PLEASE NOTE that this list is not vetted thoroughly; you should always check out organizations to your own satisfaction before transferring funds, especially internationally.

Slumdog vs. Oscar the Grouch

Tonight I get to do two things I’ve never done before: be part of a webcast, and act like an official Oscar critic!  If you feel like chatting about “Slumdog Millionaire,” please tune in tonight right after the Best Picture Award is announced.  Here are the details for how you can join the conversation in a few different ways — by phoning in like a conference call, listening on the web, or following it on Twitter:

  • http://bit.ly/slumdogdeconstruct 

I usually consider this Oscar better company than this one, so it’ll be a fun night for me to blend the two.  Most of the other official commentators on the webcast, including the journalists, are quite gung-ho on the movie.  I didn’t hate it, but I definitely had issues which I wrote about here and here, so I get to be the critical voice on the panel. 

But opinions are like, um, bellybuttons (to put it politely); everybody has one. I’m less interested in my own opinion than in how the film made me think about art-making and the ethics of telling someone else’s story, something I struggled with as I wrote Leaving India.  Anyway, it will be interesting to see what everyone has to say.

Have fun tonight, whether or not you’re spending it with Oscar!

Hetero-friendly film reviews: “Dostana” and “Milk”

Quick take:

Dostana“: Cheesy but fun fake gay film. 
Milk“: Well-made but slightly flat real gay film. 
Both hetero-friendly.
Slow take:
I recently received in the mail a copy of Passport magazine. Although the website calls it “The Insider’s Guide to Gay Travel,” on my actual magazine the tagline reads: “The Hetero-Friendly Gay Travel Magazine.”
What does that even mean?  Leave aside the utter lack of poetry and the clearly ineffective marketing strategy (please raise your hand if, straight or gay, those words would make you buy this magazine!) … here, in a 30-point white sans-serif nutshell, is the central dilemma of mainstream gay messaging:
It wants to be gay.  Oh yes it does.  But not too gay!  It still wants to be loved.  So even as it asserts its gayness, it must apologize for being gay.  Pride and shame, hand in hand.
Which brings me to our movies o’ the moment.
MOVIE #1:  “Dostana 
This is being billed as the first gay Bollywood movie. There have been some truly queer independent Indian films (“Fire,” “My Brother Nikhil“), but this is the only one to come out of the big-bucks, mega-stars industry that pumps out hundreds of movies a year.  
So the first obvious question is, Is “Dostana” really a gay movie?  The answer: Only if you thought “Three’s Company” was a gay show.  In “Dostana,” two hunky guys pretend to be gay lovers so they can move into an apartment owned by a gorgeous single woman. Of course they both fall in love with her, and drama and silliness ensue.
Like most of the three-hour comedic musical melodramas produced by Bollywood, Dostana is way too long by half.  Pre-intermission is much better than post-intermission, so feel free to leave after your popcorn or samosa break if you want. Over the second half of the movie, the plot gets increasingly ridiculous as the not-gay boys compete and scheme to get their girl.  For a queer viewer, the most interesting point of suspense becomes, Are the two men going to kiss or not?  I won’t give it away, but if you want to leave at halftime (or not go at all), you can watch a grainy bootlegged YouTube video of the climactic will-they-or-won’t-they moment here.
There are two actual gay characters, both very swishy, a magazine editor and (amusingly) a U.S. immigration officer.  Their portrayals, as well as the straight characters trying to act gay, are highly stereotypical and not for the easily offended.
At the same time, though, “Dostana” is obviously a film that had gay authorship and involvement in the creation. There are inside jokes and references to other Bollywood films and queer culture, and several precious, catty, subversive comments that could have only been inserted by gay (closeted? out? who knows) insiders.
“Dostana” has several things going for it.  It’s fun and entertaining, especially the first half.  It shows ordinary straight Indians having positive reactions to and relationships with ordinary “gay” and gay Indians, which is a step forward.  And the music is really good.
I think “Dostana” will leave a legacy. For starters, it will solidify the sexy John Abraham’s position as a gay icon. More substantively, it should open the doors for other Bollywood films to have increasingly normalized and authentic gay characters in secondary roles, and perhaps eventually in main roles.  It shows that a gay theme is not a box-office killer.
And most immediately, it’s given us a theme song. “Maa Da Laadla Begad Gaya,” which I’ll very roughly translate as “Mama’s Boy is Ruined,” rhapsodizes about the son becoming the bride and the mother shedding tears.  Though the lyrics are tongue-in-cheek tragic, the tune is classic catchy Bollywood pop. I expect to hear it at every desi queer party from now till the next millennium.
The song I liked the most was called “My Desi Girl,” and it’s about how Indian women are the most gorgeous ever. It’s so over the top that it’s kind of ridiculous, and it’s obviously a retrograde assertion of heterosexuality so that the movie won’t come off as too gay… but it still made me feel kinda happy.  (By the way, I can’t vouch for the safety of downloading songs from these links, though I’ve risked it and so far suffered no obvious adverse consequences.)
MOVIE #2:  “Milk 
I was really excited to see this film, made by Gus Van Sant (whose “My Own Private Idaho” was one of the most beautiful boy movies ever) and starring Sean Penn, who is G’s man-crush.  
First the good:  Penn does an amazing job inhabiting a completely different body and mannerisms than his own, without swishing.  The acting is really great, and the film makes interesting use of archival footage in an attempt to make history come alive.  It was great to see it at the Castro and then walk outside and be dazzled by being in the middle of such an important story.  I loved learning how thousands of ordinary queers, by organizing and coming out and asserting themselves, defeated the anti-gay Briggs Initiative in one of the first populist electoral victories for gay Americans. And I cried at the candlelight vigil at the end, lovingly re-created with hundreds of extras from our community, some of whom I recognized.
The film also powerfully shows the schism that still exists today between the assimilationist and radical wings of the U.S. gay movement. The argument between the “establishment gays” like the editor of the Advocate and the grassroots street activists that Milk organized is still going on, and was most evident in the recent No on Proposition 8 campaign, much of whose campaign literature studiously avoid the words “gay and lesbian.”
So this movie is the opposite of “Dostana” in a lot of ways: it’s faithful to real gay people, politically progressive, and … not really very entertaining.
The main problem is that there’s very little suspense.  Basically two things happen in the movie: In the first half, Harvey Milk gets elected to the San Francisco board of supervisors. In the second half, he gets killed.  Since it’s history, almost everyone knows both those facts walking in the door.  The job of the filmmaker, then, is to create suspense in character development and subplots.
That doesn’t happen, partly because “Milk” is so hagiographical that none of the characters can get very complicated or, really, develop.  Dan White, the killer, is wack from his very first scene to his last.  Harvey Milk is good, sweet, hard-working, and politically right-on from beginning to end.  The only person who has any kind of conversion experience is Cleve Jones, who goes from street hustler to the campaign’s main man, but even that is more a testament to Milk’s compassion in adopting the strays of the community than an attempt at actually showing a character’s emotional trajectory.  It’s as if the filmmaker couldn’t risk, in a mainstream release about a gay hero, to portray that hero or his allies as anything less than perfect.
Instead, the real transformation in the film is in the gay movement itself, which provides some excitement, though in a more intellectual than emotional way. Still, this portrayal made me glad to have seen “Milk,” as well as eager to watch the 1994 documentary that covers the same territory, “The Times of Harvey Milk.”
Watching both “Milk” and “Dostana,” I was reminded of what I once heard the director Frank Oz say about his 1997 movie “In & Out“:  “It was about being subversive while being safe. … A studio’s not going to give you $40 million for a movie about a gay teacher without being entertaining to a whole lot of people.”
At the time I saw “In & Out,” several years ago, I was really offended by it and by Oz’s “safe but subversive” claim in the post-film talk.  The movie didn’t seem subversive at all to me; it was merely safe, and stereotypical. The main character of “In & Out” is a swishy teacher whom everyone thinks is gay because of how he walks, but he says he isn’t. Tom Selleck has a cameo role and … well, it’s just really bad.
But this weekend, watching “Dostana,” I sort of understood how someone of a certain generation in a mainstream movie studio at a certain political moment might truly believe that that was the only feature he could make.  
And watching “Milk,” I understood how, before the current marriage movement, large numbers of Americans (think Anita Bryant and the Briggs Initiative) found the issue of gay teachers so threatening that perhaps a silly comedy was a reasonably subversive way to approach it.  
Still, even Oz expressed mixed feelings about his final product: “I wanted it safe, but maybe not that safe.”
And that might be why, in general, I like truly subversive and risk-taking indie movies way, way more than the mainstream versions, with their fiscally motivated, built-in, hetero-friendly, safety features.