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Economic Orientalism: The ‘other’ dog

10 Mar

edward-said

Slumdog Millionaire scooped eight Oscars in Hollywood just over a fornight ago including Best Picture and Best Director.

But journalist Anuja Prashar, recently described in The Indian Star that the  film’s success was an indication of the “asymmetry, ambivalence and atavism” of the globalisation process.

The ‘Other’

She has gone further in proposing that the film’s success may be premised on the development of ‘Economic Orientalism’, based on Professor Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism and the Other, which explains “Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient” and the positioning of ‘them’ and ‘us’.

It suggests that Western nations, particularly Britain and the U.S., in times of unemployment and recession are glancing at growing economic powers such as India with a colonial undertone.

Prashar says:

The compounded result of creating the exotic ‘poor’ in Slumdog Millionaire and western leadership rhetoric, is the emergence of an ‘Economic Orientalism’, that defines western economic status as relative to that of the emerging or developing economic status. The positioning of the two, ‘them’ and ‘us’ allows for power and influence to remain centred within a national frame of reference, at the individual level and the national level.

For example, Gordon Brown asserting Britain’s suitability for global leadership of global financial regulation. This discursive approach supports a continuation of the ‘them’ and ‘us’ stance, reminiscent of western ancestral periods of history, with re-imagined notions of a national global leadership.

Global power

With an increase in media stories about real slumlife being born from the fictional Slumdog’s success, is the underbelly portrayal of the Global South damaging the chances of a country on the brink of becoming a superpower? Does it merely echo imperialist propaganda?

Phantom India Louise MalleI can say the latter definitely doesn’t apply to Boyle. Despite some criticisms and protests, the Indian government seemed more welcoming to Slumdog than four decades ago when it had imposed severe restrictions on foreign media after the BBC  broadcast Louis Malle’s documentary, Phantom India.

This time round, the effects of globalisation are more apparent and India is far more confident.

But the question, which Prashar also poses, is should the media be steering away from just painting the negative under developed picture that we have grown so accustomed to? Self censorship in order to aid nation-building – or simply ignoring what is the reality?

Slumdog Millionaire: Westertainment?

21 Feb
Jamal Malik sees the light? Picture: Slumdog Millionaire

Jamal Malik sees the light? Picture: Slumdog Millionaire

Composer of Slumdog Millionaire’s score, A. R. Rahman will perform at tomorrow’s Oscars for the first time. Hollywood is on India’s news agenda and Bollywood is on the world’s, but this time it’s highlighting the plight of the thousands of children living the slum life.

With ongoing debates as to whether ‘poverty porn’ has resurfaced out-dated modernisation discourse, the success of Danny Boyle’s film has been received with mixed responses of pride, joy, frustration and a post-colonial identity crisis in India.

It has taken an 11-time Oscar nominated film to put urban slums in the spotlight. Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay already looked at the country’s underbelly of street children and, amongst other awards, won the more understated Caméra d’Or at Cannes. Made in the eighties however, Mumbai was then Bombay, missing the skyscrapers which tower today’s slums present in Boyle’s panoramic shots of India.

Imperialism

New York-based journalist, Hirsh Sawhney today criticised Slumdog’s contemporary depiction of Mumbai as simplifying poverty and the West’s relationship with it. His criticism bears resemblance to those who have previously examined the shortcomings of cultural imperialism and promoting Western values as a solution to the problems of undeveloped countries.

In the Guardian’s Comment is free, he said:

“In fact, far from spreading the blame for global poverty, Boyle’s film actually suggests that the West is the solution to India’s problems. Protagonist Jamal only escapes his ceaseless cycle of squalor and crime once he makes it into the orderly, democratic world of a British call centre…The subtext is clear: things are really bad in urban India but healthy servings of western values are just what the doctor – and the Academy judges – ordered.”

Controversy

Lights Camera Action (see video here) hosted a diverse discussion panel in Houston last week on the controversies sparked by the film in India, addressing why, if the case, the Western world is obsessed with poverty porn and also begging the question – does India need an outsider (from the West) to step in before its government wakes up and smells the chai?

Bachchan criticises film for portraying India as 'third-world, dirty, underbelly developing nation'

Bachchan criticises film for portraying India as 'third-world, dirty, underbelly developing nation'

The economic polarity in India is portrayed the scene where Bollywood actor Amithabh Bachchan (who has also aired criticisms) by proxy, nonchalantly signs an autograph for Jamal who is literally covered head to toe in crap.

The conventional Bollywood style movie is more glitz and glamour-induced escapism than realism and the latter in this case seems to have a hit a little too close to home truths.

Western ideals

With a Jamal Malik, who goes on to speak fluent English in the latter half of the movie, takes up the chai wala job in a Western style call centre and attempts to escape the slums on a Western adopted gameshow, Indians are likely to be defensive at the thought of Western audiences criticising their nation.

Despite this we can’t forget that Boyle’s film is not a documentary. It is an entertaining love story that could almost have been shot anywhere. Films such as City of God, set in Rio have also highlighted a similar need for development. On the way however, Slumdog has reminded audiences of the slums, which can’t be swept under the rug just because it makes a prospering country look bad.