If you want to see real poverty in its gritty detail, filthy grime, and even its revolting brutality, then Slumdog Millionaire is the venue. The movie swept the Academy Awards in 2010 and became an international box office sensation. The film chronicles the rise of a young boy from the slums of Mumbai to riches and romance.
For the affluent with a weak stomach, poverty is made palatable by romanticizing it. Film critic Nikhat Kazmi of the Times of India calls the movie “a piece of riveting cinema, meant to be savored as a Cinderella-like fairy tale . . . It was never meant to be a documentary on the down and out in Dharavi [the slum].”4 The critics and its own publicity materials branded it a feel-good movie. The desperate squalor of poverty is but an exciting backdrop for a traditional rags-to-riches fable.
Columnist Anand Giridharadas of the New York Times wrote that the movie portrays “a changing India, with great realism, as something India long resisted being: a land of self-makers, where a scruffy son of the slums can, solely of his own effort, hoist himself up, flout his origins, break with fate.”5 The movie does convey the message that the poor can bootstrap themselves out of poverty—this is the romanticization of poverty that makes for good poortainment. But it is not a realistic portrayal of the poor in India today.
This is the real poverty in India: 76 percent of Indians live below the commonly used $2/day poverty line;6 34 percent of adults are illiterate;7 15 percent of boys and 19 percent of girls do not attend even primary school; 48 percent of children are underweight for their age; 7 percent of children die in the first five years of their lives;8 79 percent of rural households and 46 percent of urban households do not have a toilet; 9 and 386,000 children die from diarrhea every year.10
There is no easy way to eradicate poverty, but expecting the poor to bootstrap themselves out of poverty is surely not the solution. “You cannot pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have no boots.”11 But these illusionary bootstraps allow the middle and upper classes to cope with the poverty they see. Romanticizing poverty is appealing because it implies the poor can cope on their own.
Another way to romanticize poverty is to claim that the poor are still happy. The movie’s screenwriter, Simon Beaufoy, said he wanted Slumdog Millionaire to convey “the sense of this huge amount of fun, laughter, chat, and sense of community that is in these slums.”12