Saturday, 21 March 2009

The Consumption of Despair

Despite all the technicalities of Slumdog Millionaire and the thought-provoking questions it raises, there is something of the film that I don't want to appreciate.

Even though I trust that the director and the screenplay may not have the ulterior motive of portraying India as a fallen civilisation of filthiness, poverty, child abuse, organised crimes, ethnic and religious clashes, a global sweatshop of customer service and IT support, I must admit that I am most disturbed and uncomfortable being presented with all these so intensively within two hours.

I can't help wondering why I am still fed with all these stereotypes. Does it have anything to do with the British director and screenplay and the mental discourse they unconsciously underwent when making the film?

No wonder post-colonialism has emerged as one of the most popularly debated and studied issue in the academia. But forget all the intimidating jargons and non-reader friendly discussions. Just take a look at how cities and nations that are formerly colonies of the West are popular culture commodities and you will have a good sense of the power structure of international politics.

Two surviving civilisations of the East, China and India, for example, are often portrayed as exotic, mysterious, autocratic, corrupt, poor, dirty, falling behind the civilised world in terms of economic and social development but by Western standards. Too much emphasis has been put on the colourful costumes and props and exotic experience in Western eyes. Yet few have enquired the long history and sophisticated philosophy of why these civilisations have become what they are, let alone attempting to understand and appreciate the fact that they are so unique that deserve full respect as independent entities on equal footing.

Unfortunately Slumdog Millionaire can't seem to spare itself from falling into the fallacy of cultural superiority of the West. On the one hand it does draw public attention to the social problems of India, yet on the other it is also reinforcing the consumption of someone's despair in India from a superior position. Somehow I feel like one of the arrogant colonisers sympathising with their subjects living in poverty and despair, without being aware of the fact that they are a major source of the grievances. Superiority of the West is yet again reinforced through the consumption of others' despair that may be underestimated or exaggerated in the biased production.

What is even more disturbing to me is not the confrontation between the East and West. Rather, it is the general fact that the well-off around the world are increasing their consumption of others' despair as a lenient form of abuse. Charitable organisations, be they international or local, often focus or even exaggerate the suffering of those in need to call for donations and support. This is perfectly understandable, but I just can't help feeling a chill down the spine as if I were encouraging this form of lenient abuse and benevolent deprivation of one's dignity.

Perhaps the next question is: how can we call for attention and action to help those in need without abusing them as inferior creatures but equally respectable individuals, even if we don't really mean to be abusive?

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