Eye Say

Hollywood, poverty, and the hard truth.

by Jennie Kermode

The kids in Slumdog Millionaire

The kids in Slumdog Millionaire

What is it like to be a child living on the streets of Mumbai? After watching Slumdog Millionaire, many viewers will feel they've gained an insight into this difficult life. Perhaps as a consequence, donations to charities working in this area have increased, yet there have also been accusations of exploitation concerning the film's child stars. Having helped it to win several Oscars, shouldn't they be millionaires now?

The truth is that there's a big difference between the image of celebrity and success which Hollywood promotes and the reality of life in the industry. Contrary to the popular myth, most people who star in films - even successful ones - don't make a lot of money. Many directors and producers don't either. But it doesn't take a lot of money by western standards to lift a child out of poverty, so why are we still hearing stories of these children's struggles just to keep roofs over their heads and get enough to eat?

Some of this has to do with what makes good headlines. Just over a month ago The News Of The World ran a shocking story which accused Rafiq Qureshi, father of Rubina Ali (who played the young Latika) up for sale to potential adoptive parents. Mr Qureshi has since hit back at the newspaper, accusing it of lying and of trying to exploit his family's poverty. The truth may be difficult to determine, but it leaves one question unanswered - how could a man in his position not be tempted by the sort of money he was offered (in the newspaper's sting operation) when he was struggling to feed several other children?

The film's director Danny Boyle and producer Christina Colson have now set up a trust fund for Rubina and her young co-star Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, which will pay for new homes for their families and provide them with a good education. They have also been offered homes by Chief Minister Ashok Chavan. But these are just two children, and whilst western eyes may be wide with horror at the thought of the bright young stars having to face poverty, millions of others are forgotten.

"Currently 25 million Indian children there live without homes or families of their own," says author Shelley Seale. "They live in orphanages, slums, railway stations or on the streets. Yes, that's 25 million - equivalent to the population of the entire state of Texas. They are highly vulnerable to abuse, harassment, HIV/AIDS, and being trafficked into child labor if they're lucky - brothels if they're not."

Seale has spent three years travelling around India to research her book, The Weight Of Silence, which explores the lives of children like these. Stating that Slumdog Millionaire portrayed their situation "all too well", she says "like everyone, I loved the magical, feel-good ending. But I also hope desperately that we will not forget that there is no such fairytale ending for millions of Indian children in similar circumstances. For them, such dreams will remain only that."

So what can be done to help the situation? The makers of Slumdog Millionaire have donated $1m to charities tackling child poverty in India, and the money should go a long way. But by presenting audiences with fairytale solutions, do films like this encourage them to believe that poverty isn't really so bad, so that even if they donate in the short term they'll stop worrying about it in the long term? Some critics have suggested that Hollywood exploits poverty to profit from viewers who may be motivated by social conscience or by voyeurism. In an affluent world, is poverty one of the last truly exotic experiences?

Perhaps what we need to ask is not why Hollywood chooses to show us poverty but, rather, why it does so so rarely. After all, there's poverty in the west too, but you wouldn't know it to look at most big studio films. It's not the budgets and the celebrity salaries that are suspicious so much as the fact that the characters we see are almost always upper middle class, living in a comfortable world where money is not an issue. Whatever other dramas they may have to contend with in life, they're rarely worried about making the rent or figuring out how to pay for the weekly food shop.

Given that so many of us to have to deal with those problems in real life, we may not want to see them reflected on the big screen - there's a strong argument for escapism. But this creates the problem that we may find it hard to identify with screen heroes, and it certainly creates a deceptively comfortable image of the west in the eyes of the wider world.

Because it acknowledges poverty so rarely, Hollywood cannot help but make it seem exotic when it does appear onscreen. Because filmgoers want to be entertained, there's a danger that it will thus propagate the myth of people being poor but happy - fine in an individual story, but misleading when it comes to the ongoing problems real people face in their lives.

25 years after Live Aid, few people still believe that rock n' roll can really save the world. Likewise, we shouldn't delude ourselves with the notion that a single film, no matter how successfully it raises our awareness of poverty, can make much difference. What matters is what we do in the long term. It matters not because child stars should expect to get rich from one successful film, but because no child should ever have to live in such desperate circumstances. We shouldn't let the movies delude us into believing that everybody's ship will come in one day. Dreams are well worth having, but outside the doors of the cinema, real life is waiting.

The Weight Of Silence is available from http://www.shelleyseale.com

Visit ActionAid to see how you can help India's poor - http://www.actionaid.org/india/

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