By Rod Bastanmehr
City on a Hill Press Columnist

There’s nothing that Hollywood likes more than a rags-to-riches story, and “Slumdog Millionaire” is no exception. Telling the tale of a teen living in the slums of Mumbai, India who’s given a chance to win big on a local game show, the film became the Oscar season underdog that blossomed into a box office hit, a critical darling, and the most highly awarded film of the year.

And for what was originally being prepped as a straight-to-video release, it’s easy to see the similarities between the film’s source material and the Cinderella story it would eventually find itself at the center of.

But behind the scenes, controversy has erupted regarding the film’s two youngest stars, Azharuddin Ismail and Rubina Ali, both eight-year-olds hand-plucked from the very Mumbai slums the film depicts and placed into a set that perhaps hit a little too close to home.

The first bit of controversy arose when the children’s parents revealed that the child actors did not receive adequate pay for their amount of work, especially in light of the film’s steady shift into a substantial box office hit, having grossed over $80 million thus far. And while Fox Searchlight, the film’s distributing studio, has made the decision to pay for the children’s schooling, no significant amount of money will be awarded until the two actors turn 18.

But just a mere two months ago, Azharuddin’s family found themselves evicted from the very slum-hovel the film so acutely presented. This left the children, in addition to a tuberculosis-ridden father and a half-blind mother, on the streets with nothing more than a tarpaulin and a rotting mattress.

As of right now, “Slumdog” director Danny Boyle has no intention of awarding the children a larger sum of money, and is instead standing by the studio’s decision to invest in the children’s long–term educational plan. In addition, the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority of the City of Mumbai has awarded the two families with one-bedroom flats meant to pull them out of the slums and into a cleaner and safer environment, a move that many argue the board would never have made, had the film not become so popular.

In fact, that’s the argument on many people’s lips, as protest against the Mumbai slums begins to heat up and slowly become this year’s hottest thing to stand against. Could Hollywood be gaining more momentum in regard to social awareness, becoming the soapbox for a generation that looks to its stars as spokespeople to dilute convoluted conflicts into digestible politics?

In short, does it take an Oscar to get atrocities to matter?

“Slumdog Millionaire” is hardly the first example of Hollywood as an impetus for social change — drug use was the defining sport of choice for the 1960s counterculture until the bombardment of Vietnam- heavy filmmaking brought the risks of the drug trade to light. It wasn’t until Sally Field stood defiantly on top of her cold, broken factory machine in “Norma Rae” that unionizing became the everyman’s working cause. And you would have been hard-pressed to find too many global warming bumper stickers in the days before Al Gore made the truth so inconvenient.

So why does it take a movie to make us care? The outcry against the slums of Mumbai have never before been in the forefront of political consciousness; now, they find themselves on par with the atrocities of the Gaza strip, getting more attention in the last two months than they have in the past few years, back when the slums were in even worse conditions, often victims of unexpected terrorist attacks.

In fact, “Slumdog” found itself permeating into political and cultural relevance rather early on. In November of 2008, over 10 highly-orchestrated terrorist attacks struck Mumbai, resulting in the destruction of the iconic train station that much of the film’s climax takes place in. Eight of the attacks occurred in South Mumbai alone — that’s one for every Oscar that “Slumdog” won, in order to make it easier to digest.

Yet the public outcry was a whimper in comparison to the balking that has resulted at the thought of the film’s two child actors being underpaid. And while it’s a start that people are caring, the catalyst for attention should extend beyond award season and box office numbers — it shouldn’t take a theater to get us informed.

But maybe we need to see the happy endings before we can face the harsh realities. Maybe Hollywood needs to present a story for us to aspire to in order for us to care enough to act. Or maybe it’s as simple as the student-teacher effect: it’s only important if you tell me it is.

Until then, maybe investing in Azharuddin Ismail and Rubina Ali isn’t such a bad idea. Maybe then, future generations will have the chance to be informed before Oscar season rears its ugly head once again. And if “Slumdog” has taught us anything, it’s that there is always hope for change.

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