Slumdogs and sentences: The unique attention to India at the Oscars

India at the Oscars

This is the season of the Oscars, and with the latest list, we read about the award for a documentary based in Northern India, ‘Period. End of a Sentence’. The film presents the story of the Pad Project[1], an initiative that worked towards providing safe, clean and low-cost sanitary towels for women in the villages featured. The project is undoubtedly a great initiative and worthy of the attention it has received, both from the national media as well as the film. What I have problems with is the ways in which the film feeds on the awkwardness and embarrassment generated around the discussion of menstruation. I strongly believe that the film violates the privacy of the people featured, something that would create an uproar in a wealthier society. It appears as if, being relatively poor, rural and also unaware of the ways in which their reactions can be construed, people lose their claim to basic dignity and self-respect.

The film, moves from the initial shots of young girls shocked into silence during interrogation about menstruation in a classroom and when I came across this article, thanks to Suranya Aiyar, I understood why I was angry. In the Blogpost, ‘And the Oscar goes to…” by Mythri Speaks Media[2], the filmmaker is quoted as having said in an interview that: “For example, we walked into a co-ed classroom, unannounced, in India. The teacher asked the 15-year-old students if anyone could tell her what menstruation was. And there’s a shot in the film of a young girl who’s called upon, and she stands up completely petrified. In the film, there is about 30 seconds where she literally cannot say a word. In real life we got about three minutes of footage of her where it seemed like she was going to faint. It was so hard to watch and realize that the shame was so painful. In the edit, part of you wants to indulge in the drama of it and continue that shot for as long as you can…..”

Can a film-maker simply walk unannounced into a classroom anywhere? Even with all the credentials of a University Professor, armed with permissions and ethics clearances, I have been refused permission to take pictures in schools in other parts of the world. You can see, but you cannot document! I clearly a European classroom in which I was advised to take shots of the walls and furniture because it was considered a “violation of children’s privacy”. Another time around a decade ago, a colleague (a native to the country) who was unaware of the more recent changes in policy, whipped out his camera at a playground and set about taking some shots for his proposed talk at our University when he received a sharp objection from a passer-by that someone would soon call the police on him for the violation. Although the above encounters seem rather severe, I cannot help feeling that as a society, we have failed to protect the dignity of our own people. I fully agree with the opinion in the article, that for this and other shots like this, the filmmakers need to apologise to the people featured.

Slums, Dogs and Maillionaires

On February 20th, and the Bombay Times magazine section of the TOI announces a headline “I don’t watch Slumdog Millionaire, it’s embarrassing” (Originally from the Daily Mirror[3]). The article was provoked by Oscar season in Hollywood, harking back to the day when child actor Rubina Ali got to attend the Oscars along with “Uncle Danny” (Director Danny Boyle) and other actors in the movie. Despite the fact that the film has raked in huge profits and much attention, there have been mixed feelings about the screenplay, an adaptation of Vikas Swaroop’s story.

Rubina asserts that “The film stole my childhood. My mother and father didn’t know much, they’re not educated so they had no idea how to handle the fame and attention. It was too much for them”, making her vulnerable to exploitation, deceitful encounters and “fake friends”. Her 15 minutes of glory at the Oscars was life-changing for sure, but her nostalgia about home-cooked food, companionship in the streets of her old home and her naïve trust in ordinary people is heart-rending. Although she resists from giving details in this interview, there is no doubt that name and fame brought much glory and attention, but created an imbalance in her life, and led to changes that she herself was unprepared for. She adds: “I don’t want people to use me and harm me. I want to stay away from people, really. I’d rather be alone than with people who are fake….. I miss how it was, the home I had. I loved my neighbours and close family nearby. We were a close community – everyone was so nice, but it’s gone now.” She feels better prepared for an acting career now, because she knows that “Once you get attention, people appear out of nowhere”.

One would imagine that Rubina would long to return to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, having had a taste of the dreamland, but she says simply “I like Hollywood and Bollywood both, but I don’t want to move overseas”, besides “I remember I didn’t like the US food. Dev Patel used to feed me with his hand – pizza and burgers – but I like Indian spicy food, I didn’t like the continental food.”

Postscript

In preparation for this post, I spoke to some of my team members (and others) focussing on feature films and documentaries. Here are three conversations that I’d like to mention.

Regarding Rubina, Damini made a point about the possibility that Rubina’s current views emerge from her experiences during and after the film: travel to Hollywood, change in financial status, education and fame, without which she may not have had these sentiments. Although it is impossible to confirm this, I see the point of the argument. Rubina had stepped out of her childhood home and gained an outside perspective on her childhood and her views result from that reality. She could perhaps now afford the luxury of looking back with nostalgia precisely because she no longer lives there. How she would have evaluated her childhood experiences without having been part of SDM (the film), it can only be speculated. I think Damini has an important point here.

Regarding cinema, Reshu pointed to another film that she felt handled the subject of growing up much more sensitivity, ‘Village Rockstars’[4]. This is not a documentary film, but the ways in which the presentation of young children is handled, is elegant and respectful of their personal dignity and social circumstances, Reshu remarked. I shall soon locate the movie and add a review here.

In my own experience, it is not simply a matter of the topic, it also relates to the company or audience. My experience has been that only when you are accepted by a community, discussions (especially) among women are a lot more open, even bordering on being too blunt! I myself have sometimes been embarrassed in such situations during my field-work :). Although I have not been privy to conversations between the sexes, I doubt that the proximity to nature, particularly animals, leaves much scope for doubts about sexuality. I believe that the narratives in the film are heavily influenced by the presence of strangers with a camera.

I spoke with my housekeeper about conversations with her daughters about growing up, menstruation and sexuality; and also told her about the documentary. Her response to the scenes was quite sharp. She said “the ‘way’ in which we speak with our daughters is not so direct, and honestly, in front of a camera, I too would be shy and awkward, and I would hate to be filmed like that. About my 14 year-old daughter in such an interview, I think she would react in the same way although she was prepared for the onset of menstruation by me. Didi, I think it is not right for them to show their shyness, I wouldn’t want my daughter to be in such a film”. Notwithstanding the greater openness about such matters in central and southern States of India, this openness is shared within a private circle. When I started the conversation with her, she first asked why I wanted to know her opinion. How many of us (researchers, journalists, filmmakers) grant our participants the respect to voice their opinions, or to resist from responding to our questions?

The issue of dignity and respect of people is a complex issue and there are no straightforward answers. Banning or boycotting cinema because it portrays people in disagreeable ways is not the answer. Perhaps one can simply raise awareness about these issues and let the audience decide what they think about the ethics of cinema and its responsibility (duty?) towards society. Here is another interesting article from which this picture has been taken. We would like to acknowledge FOX SEARCHLIGHT and the author of the article for this. https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/entertainment/yes-i-am-going-to-india-no-its-not-like-what-you-see-in-slumdog-millionaire


[1] https://www.thepadproject.org/

[2] https://mythrispeaks.wordpress.com/2019/02/26/and-the-oscar-goes-to-period-end-of-sentence-for-use-of-false-data-misrepresentation-of-indian-women-and-violation-of-child-rights/

[3] https://www.mirror.co.uk/3am/celebrity-news/slumdog-girl-picked-crowds-indias-14005466

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Village_Rockstars

2 Comments

  1. Renu Kishore: Debatable but it is definitely unethical to walk into a home or classroom and catch people unawares. Talking about menstruation to school girls in the presence of their male classmates in a rural setting in India will definitely evoke responses of shame and inhibition. Maybe their responses would be very different when approached privately! Comment sourced from Masala Chai FB Page https://www.facebook.com/musingsaboutlittlepeople/

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  2. Shweta Goyal: l Usually I agree with points in your posts but not for this particular one. I recently watched this and didn’t walk away feeling the way you did. In fact I didn’t care about the documentary much. Nothing in it was a surprise. And the issue of being uncomfortable isn’t about rural India. I could never talk to my dad about it. Even now going and sitting in a puberty class with my daughter was uncomfortable. It is just we grow up without sex Ed and hence all such topics become taboo. I went to a Catholic School and I still remember giggles in bio class. So it isn’t even about male presence. I don’t think any film maker is to be blamed here. This ability to capture rural societies around the world has also resulted in massive funding flows from West. One could say the same about gully boy. In fact when I read this post it reminded me of that shot when the man demands more money from travel agent to allow to take pictures. Who knows if people were paid and hence became willing participants. One could argue this allowed them to be exposed that it’s ok to talk about it in front of boys. There is nothing to be ashamed off. Even grown men were uncomfortable talking about pad machine. It’s just how we were raised and talking about it openly is the best way to address it.
    Comment sourced from Masala Chai FB Page https://www.facebook.com/musingsaboutlittlepeople/

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