Slumdog Millionaire (or I Want to Sue the Indian Government: Memories of Gods, Lovers, and Slumdogs)
An old Native American curse goes like this, “May all your dreams come true!”
For many years, I had a dream; I wanted very badly to visit mysterious India. Last month my wish unexpectedly came true. Forbidden Sun Dance, my most recent documentary, was selected to compete in the Tri-Continental Human Rights Film Festival in India. This was a great opportunity to discover the land of my dreams.
While on tour with the festival, I was invited to watch Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire in a fancy movie theatre in the dazzling and enormous city of Mumbai by a lovely Bollywood moviemaking couple.
I had never seen such a theatre anywhere in North America! For double the ticket price, you get a seat in which you can actually lie down! Superbly comfortable, they were a bit like those huge massage chairs that I had seen in shopping malls in Canada.
I felt very strange sitting in that chair, munching on popcorn and watching not a fantasy-filled Bollywood movie, but a somewhat more realistic portrayal of life in India...
Bollywood – My Childhood Love
As a little girl growing up in Iran, and like millions of others living in Eastern countries, I loved Bollywood movies. They were all colour and glamour and rosy pictures of India, that heaven on earth; the country of love and flowers.
In my childish imagination, Bollywood’s India was the best place on the planet to live and be in love. For hours, my cousins and I would sit watching Bollywood movies and later try to imitate those gorgeous Indian actresses.
We would draw moles between our eyebrows and put on lots of makeup stolen from our mothers. We would wrap Granny’s colourful hijab around our bodies and pretend it was a sari while dancing along with the actresses and lip syncing all the songs that we knew by heart without understanding more than few words!
We all wanted to steal the heart of the main actor, Amitabh Bachchan. He was the most gorgeous man ever: tall, handsome, and an amazing dancer, he was our superbly passionate romantic hero who would do anything for love and justice—at the same time! A true prince charming. I would have done anything (and I mean anything) to get his attention if he ever showed up in my neighbourhood in Tehran!
In that way, I was just like little Jamal in Slumdog Millionaire.
The end of happiness
Our happy days didn’t last long. The new Islamic regime in Iran robbed us of our childhood joys and fantasies. For girls to sing and dance became a crime against humanity, akin to adultery. Being seen to be in love, like those pretty Bollywood actresses, was to risk being stoned to death in the name of their angry and misogynist god.
Although owning a video player was a crime with a harsh punishment, we continued to keep our player and watch Bollywood movies in our basements. But this couldn’t help us to forget the cruel realities taking place outside our doors. Thousands of young Iranian revolutionaries were massacred by the new Islamic regime, which conducted a never-ending war with neighbouring Iraq, using the war as a tool to quell internal political dissent.
My childhood became nothing more than blood and hopelessness. Even Bollywood movies were powerless to bring the colour back to the dark reality that Iran had become.
I wanted a way out, something to offer the hope and fantasy that a lost teenager like me craved. Again India came through, this time with books not movies, and with a rational for what we went through. Apparently, this was our karma. We should not complain; we should accept the life that we had and be thankful in order to come back in a better situation, for instance in Switzerland or even the India as we pictured it from Bollywood movies.
I envied Indians, with their hundreds of gods. But they were more than happy to offer them to the world even a hopeless Iranian teenage girl like me. I could actually choose to believe or worship whatever god I wanted. To my surprise, the Indian gods could not change my life; they only could help me to live it more happily by changing my thoughts! In the darkness that was Iran, I was looking for a god who was less furious and violent than the one imposed on us by force after the 1979 revolution, the god of lashing, killing, stoning, war and absolute control over all, especially the guiltiest—women!
I longed to discover a happier god, a less harmful god, a god with more forgiveness and compassion. Above all, I longed for the god who would let us sing and dance—so I chose Krishna. After all, a god who would steal butter as a child couldn’t be so hard on others, right? So I chanted for Krishna: hare Krishna hare Krishna Krishna Krishna hare hare. Unfortunately our relationship didn’t last long; Krishna seemed simple to follow at first, but was too restrictive for women, even more restrict than the god at home to whom granny would pray three times a day.
As I flowered into a young woman, I found an Indian guru named Osho whose philosophies amazed me. The sexual liberty that he encouraged his followers to experience in the name of spirituality would attract any young woman living in a restricted Muslim country!
Then along came Buddha, a very popular figure with my generation. The Buddha’s philosophy was to meditate to find both internal and external peace, even while living in a violent society. My friends adored him, but I always had my reservations. Experiencing inner and outer peace in a country that hanged people in front of us on the way back from school simply wasn’t an option for me. Buddhism was too hard to understand or practice during the violent, horrifying times we were experiencing in Iran.
No, Buddha wouldn’t work for me. I couldn’t accept the misery that I had been living in for most of my life in exchange for the hope for a better life in my next body.
Losing Faith in All My Lovers
Sadly, I was losing my faith in the Indian gods. I felt like they were old lovers. I still liked to carry their pictures and had a wish to meet them in India one day, but I could not follow them anymore. We were too different, we had grown apart, and our paths were no longer the same.
I needed to get out, to have some space, to leave my childhood neighbourhood behind. The place that I had lived for so many years, the place where I had my dreams and thoughts about Amitabh Bachchan, Krishna, Osho, and Buddha for many nights, no longer felt like my home...
Finding Them in a New Home
I was surprised to find out how popular Eastern spirituality was among the middle- and upper classes in Western countries, including the country that I entered as a refugee: Canada. The lost generation found themselves in a modern, hectic world, and were critical of churches. This generation was looking towards the unknown for answers, looking for the devil they didn’t know to replace the one they knew. No doubt the countless Indian gods provided a rich buffet of choice for Westerners with wide-ranging appetites who loved to keep their "options open".
Most of my Canadian friends, and even some Iranian old leftists, would follow some new age spiritual path, god, guru or lama. They would always report a flawless image of their newfound system of old Eastern beliefs. Hundreds of dollars would be spent buying books, going to retreats and workshops, and attending the speeches of a guru or lama visiting from India who were willing to receive their offerings. Generous donations would be made for building a new ashram or temple under the names of their masters somewhere in their own city or back in the motherland. Of course, the structure had to be better and more glamorous than those consecrated to competing deities.
In all honesty, I have always been very impressed by Indians. Their brain really works in any area that they focus; perhaps it’s something in their tasty spicy food! What is clear is that they have succeeded well at selling their gods, gurus, and lamas to Westerners as they have been in selling Bollywood pictures to Easterners for generations. But I had my own confusions about India. Exposed for years to India through their successful movie marketing and convincing spirituality, I always thought that there must be more to the land of my dreams than that—a real India to discover with my own eyes.
Arriving in My Land of Dreams
Leaving the crowded Delhi airport, which had been placed on a high security alert after the terrorist attacks of a few days previously, the first thing which struck me was all the poverty that I saw. I couldn’t believe my eyes! Hundreds of people living on the streets of Delhi; babies crawling dusty roads, eating garbage alongside of dogs, cats, and cows, and ignored by ordinary people who would walk right by them pretending they didn’t exist.
No Escape from Reality
Delhi was nightmare become reality; there was no escape. Unlike many other countries where you would see poverty only in ghettos, the poor in India are everywhere. Slums full of people exist even within the wealthy neighbourhoods. There was not a moment I was able to pretend that the poor didn’t exist, except places like the unbelievably beautiful academic buildings built during British colonial era or the Western-style shopping malls and restaurants where the poor are not allowed to enter. Even there, it didn’t matter that I couldn’t see them. The poor were with me and I couldn’t ignore their presence even for a moment.
It’s not that I was completely naive before going to India. Deepa Mehta’s Elements trilogy Trilogy had introduced me to the terrible poverty, the inhumane discrimination against women, the injustice, the hypocrisy, and the corruption. But what I encountered in person was beyond what I had seen in my wildest imaginings.
A sad smile would attract many children, each begging with those beautiful eyes for some mercy. I have never felt more hopeless, and in those moments I began to understand why tourists are advised to totally ignore the people on the street. But the warnings always said it was about safety—tourists needed to be ‘safe.’
Safe? These homeless children were the safest people I have ever known. They just seemed so dehumanised and hopeless, exactly like me standing before them. They were kind, harmless, and polite. They would see my camera and were more than happy to pose for a few meagre rupees without me even asking. Their lives seemed so totally integrated with Bollywood that their reality became shaped by it.
Feeding the Temple, Forgetting the Kids
I went to a small village in Rajasthan where they were building more than seven new ashrams a short distance from each other. I couldn’t imagine how much money would be spent on those gardens and buildings and on the enormous statutes of Buddha, Shiva, or any of the other Indian gods that would stand in the front of the buildings.
I asked, and received some answers. These temples were mostly being built and paid for by Indian spiritual leaders living in Western countries using donations from their follower’s pockets.
I visited Iskan, the Hare Krishna temple to see just a few aged Western devotees chanting. Apparently the Hare Krishnas are not as popular now as during their heyday in the '60s and '70s when The Beatles had turned to them. Buddha is all the rage now in the West. Krishna has become an old fashioned, hippie god.
Many poor Indians chanted—hare Krishna hare Krishna Krishna Krishna hare hare—outside the temple, hoping to attract some rich tourist’s sympathy—and perhaps a few spare rupees. It was hurtful and shameful to read the thoughts so clearly reflected in their eyes: “Yes, you are here on a pilgrimage to find your Indian god, but I also exist in India. Please make a donation here in my bowl, and I will promise to pray on behalf of you to any of my gods that you ask. Hare Krishna!”
I couldn’t understand why, in a country where thousands of temples already exist in all different sizes, shapes, and forms, there is need for Westerners to build more temples? Could these spiritual fanatics not see all this poverty? Did they believe that they could worship these new gods from within a safe Western bubble while ignoring the people on the streets who also believe in and worship the same god? What about building schools for the millions of street kids? Or how about providing shelters for the people who are born and die in the dirt of your newfound holy land?
I always knew there was poverty in India, but I naively thought that with the huge amount of money pouring in from all over the world through the spiritual tourist market and from Bollywood into a booming and wealthy city like Mumbai (which apparently has the most millionaires on the planet) more would have been done for the poor.
Ghandi vs. Mao?
I met an Indian businessman who had traveled all over the world, but was based in China. He strangely thought that Ghandi’s democracy had done more wrong that good for India.
I fought back. I think what Ghandi had done for this country no guru, lama, or contemporary communist dictator could do—so maybe India needs another Ghandi rather than a Chinese dictator. The businessman continued to compare his country to China and decided that the Chinese had dealt with poverty better than India ever had. He used the 2008 Olympics (China had put all the poor behind a wall), as an example.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! He was suggesting that the poor should be kept behind walls to protect tourists from exposure to the reality of misery. In a country with eighty percent its population in poverty, the government would have a hell of a job building enough walls to contain them all. Of course, this would have the benefit of leaving lots of space for the minority of privileged Indians, Bollywood stars, the wealthiest of the Zoroastrian Parsis, and of course, foreigners on spiritual pilgrimages or working for NGOs while living in five-star hotels.
I thought the only thing that India might learn from the Chinese would be to change their strict adoption laws so that the thousands of childless Westerners who are in line to receive a baby from China could adopt children from the streets of Delhi instead, and give them the love that they deserve.
I Want to Sue the Indian Government
Visiting the real India, not the one you see in tourist ads at your travel agency’s office, shattered my fantasies of the mysterious country I had always dreamed of one day visiting.
Who is responsible for the injustice that is India? Is it Bollywood, for producing distorted fantasy images for the world? India’s spiritual leaders who deceive millions of ingenuous westerners? Tourist agencies with their mind blowing exotic ads?
No, it is more likely the fault of the Indian government that tolerates savage injustice and disparity of wealth. Would it be possible, I fantasize, to sue the government of India on behalf of the millions of Indian street children who receive nothing from all the fame and wealth that India receives and enjoys? Could I seek a remedy before some court requiring those who control of the amazing, sacred land of India and who exploit it for their personal interest must share the wealth by actually contributing to India’s infrastructure and the health of its people? Surely, a country of such wealth and international fame can do something to address the abysmal poverty that surely has shocked more than one visitor into a helpless, suicidal funk.
India: the Beauty Within
I saw many beautiful things in India. I experienced real multiculturalism. Millions of different cultures and religions live and work together, while most countries in the region persecute minorities and permit no freedom of religion.
I witnessed democracy and freedom of speech at work when I saw a disabled person make a claim against the film festival in which I was participating for selecting a wheelchair unfriendly building in which to show the films. His claims caused the cancelation of the festival in the city of Goa, one of the five cities to which the festival would have traveled. It was somewhat ironic that in a country populated by millions of disabled poor living on the streets, one privileged and high-caste man could stop a highly organized human rights event.
I met some of the most amazing, generous, and peaceful people that I had ever met anywhere. I met hardworking, critical, but hopeful women activists and artists with a passion for justice that I rarely see. I met village women who would work hard on farms or in brick factories, while also making beautiful handicrafts in the hope that tourists would buy them.
There were the young, promising, intelligent Indian college students who harboured great dreams for their country and rest of the world. Some talked to me about their concerns about hostility with neighbouring Pakistan. They were worried about the possibility of war between people who one day could belong to the same land; they were disappointed with a corrupt government that is more concerned with building a war machine than with fighting poverty.
Seeing Forgotten Slum Children, But Not a Slumdog Millionaire
After a few days in India, I was sad to conclude that Slumdog Millionaire portrays an India much closer to the real thing than my childhood Bollywood movies represented. Even the theatre in which I watched Danny Boyle’s film seemed to exist in a surreal and glamorous Bollywood neighbourhood that was completely outside of the orbit of India’s reality. For me, although *Slumdog Millionaire's images were closer to reality, the rags-to-riches storyline was wildly improbable for any of the millions of India’s slum-dwelling girls and boys.
In a society of caste hierarchies that have deadly effect on the 'untouchables’—the absolute lowest caste who mostly live on the street—making a superstar out of a street urchin and providing him with a happy ending was copied from the Hollywood-Bollywood models, a fantasy provided by the same image-making machine that has always fed like a parasite on human hope for love, equality, and fairness. Yet I am still pleased with the film since it actually happened in a real Indian city and not in some surreal Bollywood set that most would think to be India.
Not-Happy-Ending to My Love Story
My best friend from Canada, who was visiting her parents in Mumbai, kindly took me around her childhood neighbourhood: the Juhu Beach areas of glamour and fame. We passed by Amitabh Bachchan’s house, the childhood favourite I shared with Slumdog Millionaire's main character. It was Republic Day and a big crowd waited anxiously for the moment when the big star would show up and give autographs to his fans.
I had no desire to meet him in person anymore, feeling I had been fooled enough by his movies as a child. Worse, huge images of him on commercial billboards all over India showed him using his fame to hawk everything from designer suits to Basmati rice, the luxuries that many of his poor fans could never hope to afford, in this life at least.
We have both changed. He is much older now—still handsome, but looking very conservative. There is no sign of the passionate man as I remember him from the old days, the man who would do anything for love and justice. I have also changed. I no longer believe in Prince Charming or the sweet fantasy of India that I used to know through his films.