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A random thought hit me today as I read the Indian newspapers' wide-ranging Oscars previews. With all eyes on "Slumdog Millionaire," the usual debate about why "poverty sells" for films about India is still underway, and once again I read several quotes from prominent Bollywood producers and directors that suggested that the reason poverty is compelling in this instance is that the film was directed by a westerner. Note that the two Indian documentaries nominated for Oscars are also about poverty and disease.
Indians are genuinely perplexed that foreigners find its poverty so interesting and moving, while foreigners cannot believe how Indians are able to find it embarrassing, unpleasant or simply ugly. But the random thought that hit me offers a simple explanation. For westerners, these films are shocking and cathartic (to varying degrees) and they make us feel virtuous that we have looked at something unpleasant head-on and acknowledged its existence — which we believe is the first step to solving the problem.
For Indians, however, the images are neither shocking (as here in India the sight of a little girl with no hands or pants begging for alms is an everyday thing) nor cathartic. Nor is there any confidence that "awareness" will somehow have an impact on the problem. The fact that westerners get briefly excited about slums in India will have no influence at all on the lives of the people who live in them. The government will not suddenly decide to provide clean water to everybody in India. The minimum wage law and child labor act will not suddenly receive a boost of support. Things will go on as usual. So the simultaneous outpouring of sentimentality and outrage — which I suppose is at the heart of the excitement about Slumdog — just looks silly and naive.