January 30, 2009 in Entertainment
The critic’s favourite and the current front-runner for this year’s Best Picture Oscar, Slumdog Millionaire, has hit its first major obstacle in the Oscar’s race. Though the film’s reception has been laregly positive thus far, there have been a few whispers of discontent, largely from Indians who believe the movie was a poor portrayal of their country.
However, now there are reports that the film had exploited two of its young stars, Rubina Ali (who plays the young Latika) and Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail (the young Salim), actual children from India’s slums, by paying them poorly for their respective roles. One paper reported that Ali earnt US$1,000 for her role, whereas Ismail received around US$2,400 for his part.
The film’s makers have come out and vehemently denied the accusations, saying that for 30 days work, the children were paid three times the average local adult salary. More importantly, they say that trust funds have been set up for the children’s college educations and will be available to them if they reach that stage. Apparently, the $15,000 prize from winning the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September was put into said trust funds.
I think Danny Boyle and the producers of Slumdog Millionaire have been a little unfairly portrayed here. Either way, there would have been criticisms coming their way, especially if there are people looking to undermine the film’s success and its chances of winning the big award at the Academy Awards next month.
What duty did the makers of Slumdog Millionaire have to these child actors? Nothing from a legal perspective, but what about from a moral perspective? Should they have given large portions of the film’s profits to instantly make the children true ‘slumdog millionaires’?
Let’s put things in perspective. The film’s budget was reportedly $15 million, not exactly a large budget by today’s standards. Even though Danny Boyle was running the show, there was no guarantee that the film was going to be the global success it has become. So it wasn’t like they had a lot of money to dish out to unknown actors in minor roles when the film was made.
The ‘real’ child actors were selected from the slums to give realism to the movie, but to be entirely fair, they had relatively small parts in the film. The money they received would have been astronomical for them already. It was also reported that the film’s makers had paid the children’s schooling costs (neither went to school before) and basic living costs (healthcare etc). But should they have done more? Should have they have taken the children and their entire families out of the environment? It’s a hard thing to say, but what they’ve already done will give the kids a real chance in life later on should they persevere.
To shower them with money would have caused other problems. The children and their families may become targets for those who envy their newfound wealth (relatively speaking), and the children might be exploited or manipulated by those around them who aren’t in their best interests. But this sounds more like an excuse than a reason.
Now that the film is making a killing at the box office, their trust funds will certainly start getting bigger, and perhaps they now have the means to not just help the child actors and their families but also other children in the slums who didn’t get such a great opportunity to star in a film like this.
So how does this ‘scandal’ affect the film’s chances at the Oscars next month? I think it depends on what happens from here. Will this scandal just blow over or is it just the beginning of a larger campaign to derail the film’s chances?
The Oscars are often publicised for being too political. Academy voters are fickle and can too easily be persuaded to vote for one film over another. A lot of hard work goes on behind the scenes in an effort to secure an Oscar nomination – even more effort is required to secure a win. As a result, there are too few surprises at the Oscars, especially in the major categories. Usually the winner can be narrowed down to one or two nominees.
There have been some notable swings in voter opinions in recent years. Who can forget when Crash defeated Brokeback Mountain? Or when Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Hurricane Carter in The Hurricane picked up Oscar momentum then lost it because of the film’s inaccuracies? What about when Denzel and Halle Berry both won Oscars in the same year (for Training Day and Monster’s Ball, respectively) when the only thing everyone could talk about was how great it would be if two African-American actors won the best acting categories? The one that sticks in my memory happened in the same year, when Russell Crowe was picked early to win back-to-back Best Actor Oscars for A Beautiful Mind (after winning for Gladiator the year before) and then a few personal ‘incidents’ booted him right out of contention.
So I think whether Slumdog will win Best Picture is still in the air. I still believe it will, mainly because we haven’t had much of a push from the other nominees so far. It was a surprise to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button get so many nominations, so it will be interesting to see if it starts to mount a challenge.