Moral Bankruptcy of the Media: Slumdog for Sale?

By Aijaz Zaka Syed – Dubai

Danny Boyle couldn’t have come up with a more perfect cast and production to bring Vikas Swarup’s obscure novel to life in Slumdog Millionaire.

The movie celebrating the rags-to-riches story of Mumbai’s poorest captured the global imagination, bringing its makers critical acclaim as well as the box office windfall.

But the Slumdog saga is far from over. Rubina Ali, the 9-year old Muslim girl who was picked up from Mumbai’s slums to play a young Latika, the female lead in the movie, finds herself at the centre of an emotional drama that would make Bollywood proud.

British tabloids’ infinite appetite for news that sells is legendary. From using arresting pictures of buxom babes in their birthday suits to peeping into royal bedrooms, the cutthroat tabloids stop at nothing. 

This past week, Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World tried to ‘buy’ Slumdog star Rubina for £200,000 or Dh1.08 million by approaching her father Rafiq Qureshi as a “shaikh from Dubai.”

Now, as a journalist I know this makes for a compelling read; what we in the media call a great ‘human interest’ story. And I am not surprised the News of the World went to town with the story splashing it across its front page with a banner headline: SLUMDOG STAR FOR SALE. Rubina’s father, however, insists he never offered to sell his daughter or give her away in adoption. He says the ‘shaikh from Dubai’ must have misunderstood him. And I believe him. Not because Qureshi is not capable of selling his daughter. It happens all the time in our part of the world. India may be a rising economic giant and a big boy on the world stage. But there are parts in this great land of ours where children are sold and adults killed for a piece of bread.

I suspect Qureshi might have given up his girl too, if he was desperate enough. If you’ve ever been to Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, or even looked at its pictures, you would know why some of those families out there might be tempted to part with their loved ones.

But Qureshi wouldn’t sell Rubina. He doesn’t have to. She is already a star in her own right. She has just signed a commercial with Hollywood superstar Nicole Kidman for a sum of money that far exceeded her fee for playing Latika in Slumdog Millionaire. And more projects are on their way. In months and years to come, she would be making more money than £200,000, the price the News of the World offered her father.

But that is not the issue here. This is not about Rubina or her father’s alleged attempt to make a fast buck. This is not even a debate about if parents, however impoverished, have a right to gift away their children, in order to give them a better future, or simply to escape their own wretched existence. What makes this whole business obscenely outrageous is the mindset at work here: That the West’s dollars and pounds can buy just about anything in the poverty-plagued Third world. From parents’ unconditional love for their children to healthy kidneys in the impoverished Third world bodies to hiring wombs, they believe anything and everything can be bought, given the right price.

The Rubina sting was disgraceful, even from the lowly standards of the News of the World.

What was it that the tabloid was trying to prove? Even if the newspaper had eventually managed to persuade the Qureshis to sell Rubina and the deal had come through, what would it prove?

There are thousands of Rubinas in Dharavi and Mumbai, living in equally appalling conditions. Some of them might be easily picked up for adoption – or whatever the name you give the racket – by making an offer to their parents they can’t refuse. But that wouldn’t mean they do not love their children as much as you and I do.

Who knows what they are going through living as they do in one of the poorest and worst neighbouhoods in the world and what, in a fleeting moment of weakness, they might find themselves doing?  But this is something over which my fellow journalists from the News of the World are hardly likely to lose their sleep.

For them, Rubina is nothing more than a good ‘human interest’ story. She’s not even a story. She’s just an idea to make the readers back home feel good about the good ol’ Raj and their former dominions. (‘Look what a mess they have made of a country that was the jewel in the empire’s crown!’)

When Slumdog Millionaire first hit the screens, some oversensitive Indians had slammed it as “pornography of poverty.” But what the UK tabloid has done is far worse and makes your skin crawl. It is an assault on the honor and dignity of a poor but proud people and a rich, ancient civilization.

The British tabloids go after the rich and famous and the bold and the beautiful all the time in their hunger for celebrity antics and nobody takes it seriously. But by targeting a totally vulnerable and illiterate family that barely comprehended what the rich reporters from the ol’ Blighty wanted, the tabloid crossed all the red lines. All those celebrities in the sights of tabloids know how to take care of themselves. But how could Rubina and her vulnerable family defend themselves against Murdoch’s bloodthirsty hounds? News agencies following Rubina’s story say Qureshi wasn’t “available for comment.”

Even if they’d managed to reach him, do we really think Qureshi could have defended himself and his vulnerable family against a ruthless, international publication and multinational corporation with loads of money? This is what makes this whole thing so nauseating. This is what makes this scam, Father Ready to Sell Slumdog Star, so vulgar and cheap. It’s easy to put yourself on a high, moral pedestal and look down on little people who live like vermin and are prepared to part with their loved ones for a price!  How would the worldly wise British journalists working for a big media corporation know what life in Mumbai’s slums means? Do they have the faintest idea how in these neighborhoods you have to fight the demons of poverty, hunger and squalor every minute of every day all your life to feed your loved ones? Where living is a constant battle against death!

You fight not just to stay alive but to protect and preserve your dignity and worth as an individual al the time. But the highflying, jet-set journalists wouldn’t understand it, would they?

When you’ve just gotten off BA’s business class after endless rounds of champagne exuding smug righteousness, you can perhaps afford to be judgmental about the obscenity of Third world poverty. But it proves nothing except the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the Western media.  

– Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: aijaz@khaleejtimes.com.

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