Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Empty as a Pocket

In 1986, with the release of his album Graceland, Paul Simon found himself in a curious position. His album was receiving the highest kudos from music critics the world over but at the same time he was being protested, criticized and vilified. The problems were many. First and foremost, he had violated a cultural boycott of South Africa, a boycott that was endorsed by the United Nations, by using South African musicians and recording in Johannesburg. Simon's supporters argued that he was giving exposure to the musicians of South Africa at a time when the world was ignoring them. His detractors claimed he was exploiting them, using them for backing rhythms, knowing that in the event of controversy, he could pull out the "I'm just trying to help" excuse. After all, without Simon it was argued, their careers in South Africa would have never taken off.

Many critics, most notably Charles Hamm and Dave Marsh, didn't buy the story then and still aren't buying it today. Marsh once quipped, concerning Simon's rationalizations, that he was "still lying after all these years." Hamm has written that the musicians Simon used and gave songwriting credit to, including Joseph Shabalala and his group Ladysmith Black Mambazo as well as General M.D. Shirinda and the Gaza Sisters, were and are all of the Conservative Black wing that, simply put, did not suffer during Apartheid. They were doing well already and Simon did not dig deep into the bowels of Soweto to find what the locals would call the real deal. And to add to the offense for many, the music was non-politicized. In most of Europe and North America that meant little, but to many musicians and artists in South Africa, it was a betrayal of the idea of using these musicians in the first place. That is to say, Simon went to all that trouble, breaking the cultural boycott and defiantly using South African musicians, only to make the grand political statement of "You Can Call Me Al." Simon said political songs would have endangered the musicians. Hamm and many South African artists disagreed.

The final insult came with the use of Linda Ronstadt on vocals for Under African Skies. The problem? Ronstadt was a habitual Sun City player and her presence on the album offended many. Writing in the Village Voice upon the album's release, preeminent rock critic Robert Christgau wrote, "The offense is compounded, of course, by who Shabalala's sister-in-song happens to be: a prominent violator of the Sun City boycott. Even if her lyric called for total U.S. divestiture, Ronstadt's presence on Graceland would be a slap in the face to the world anti-apartheid movement--a deliberate, considered, headstrong slap in the face."

Finally, there was the matter of payment, the one area where there was no controversy. Simon claimed not only were all the musicians paid according to American union standards, but triple that. Even Hamm agreed, the musicians were well paid.

There is a similar situation today, not with music but with the movies. Not with musicians but with actors. The movie is Slumdog Millionaire and the actors are Rubina Ali and Azharuddin Ismail, and this time the money situation isn't so easily defended.

First, here is the release from the filmmakers and the studio distributors:


From the moment that we hired them and long before the press became interested in this story, we have paid painstaking and considered attention to how Azhar and Rubina's involvement in the film could be of lasting benefit to them over and above the payment they received for their work.

The children had never attended school, and in consultation with their parents we agreed that this would be our priority. Since June 2008 and at our expense, both kids have been attending school and they are flourishing under the tutelage of their dedicated and committed teachers. Financial resources have been made available for their education until they are 18. We were delighted to see them progressing well when we visited their school and met with their teachers last week.

In addition to their educational requirements, a fund is in place to meet their basic living costs, health care and any other emergencies. Furthermore, as an incentive for them to continue to attend school a substantial lump sum will be released to each child when they complete their studies. Taking into account all of the children's circumstances we believe that this is the right course of action.

Since putting in place these arrangements more than 12 months ago we have never sought to publicize them, and we are doing so now only in response to the questions raised recently in the press. We trust that the matter can now be put to bed, and we would request that the media respect the children's privacy at this formative time in their lives.

- - Danny Boyle and Christian Colson


The welfare of Azhar and Rubina has always been a top priority for everyone involved with Slumdog Millionaire. A plan has been in place for over 12 months to ensure that their experience working on Slumdog Millionaire would be of long term benefit. For 30 days work, the children were paid three times the average local annual adult salary. Last year after completing filming, they were enrolled in school for the first time and a fund was established for their future welfare, which they will receive if they are still in school when they turn 18. Due to the exposure and potential jeopardy created by the unwarranted press attention, we are looking into additional measures to protect Azhar and Rubina and their families. We are extremely proud of this film, and proud of the way our child actors have been treated.

- - Fox Searchlight Pictures, Fox Star Studios, Pathe International

Having read through that in its entirety you may have noticed no one mentions what the two children were paid. The distributor release says "For 30 days work, the children were paid three times the average local annual adult salary." Triple, just like Paul Simon. Only Simon was paying triple union wages. Fox says they were paid triple the adult salary for the area. Do you want to know what the average adult salary for the area is? Rs 48,954. That's 48,954 Rupees. If you use a currency calculator like this one, you will find that 48,954 Rupees converts to $1,006 dollars. And in fact, the reports that do state how much the children were paid use the figures of a little over $1,060 and $3,600 for Rubina and Azharuddin respectively which jibes with the annual salary figures. Rubina got the average annual salary and Azharuddin got three times that. Now, for those who would argue that "well it's still three times" one would have to ask, "Is it fair to pay someone in Mexico 25 cents an hour just because the normal wage is 10 cents an hour?"

The cost of living in India is not in fact so far beneath that of England or the United States that an average salary of one thousand dollars puts you on Easy Street. Oh no, that average salary is well below the poverty level. It's just that, for that area, the average wage earner is impoverished.

So, if you are a producer, or director, or distributor and have within your means to pay these actors at least American or European Union Scale, why wouldn't you? The basic rates for a performer according to this rate sheet are as follows: $624 and $775 for a Day Player, category I or II and $2,190 and $2,712 for a Weekly Player (five days), category I and II. Now, if we take the low end, $624, and multiply by 30 we get $18,720. If we go weekly, again on the low end, and multiply $2,190 by six (30 days or six five day periods) we get $13,140. Either way, it's higher than what they got.

But Danny Boyle, the director, and Christian Colson, the producer, state they have also set up a trust fund, which will take care of the children's education and become theirs once they make it to eighteen, provided they stay in school. And if they can't stay in school or prefer to learn a trade so they can begin earning money at fourteen? Well, I guess they're screwed. Why they cannot have the trust fund set up and a lump sum of three or four time union wages paid up front I have no idea. If they were paid three times union scale, as Paul Simon did with the musicians on his Graceland album, an album that did not make nearly the amount of money that Slumdog Millionaire has, then the children would have been paid, using the low end weekly figure, $39,420 each. For first time actors in major supporting roles in a major motion picture that's fair. Many get much more, some get less, but for a non-star who cannot demand millions, that's about right.

So why didn't they get that? With such figures amounting to mere drops in a bucket for a producer and a distributor, why the hardball on the figures and the convoluted setup of the trust fund? Why? Honestly, I don't have the answer and it may surprise you but I still think it's possible that nothing wrong happened here. Maybe that trust fund is good for millions. The California Child Actor's Bill, popularly known as the Coogan Act, was enacted in 1939 after it was discovered that Jackie Coogan, one of the most successful child stars in Hollywood in the teens and twenties, had lost almost all of what he had made. His parents, it turns out, had spent nearly four million dollars of his money and Coogan, reaching adulthood, was left with $126,000. The bill applies to Hollywood productions only but maybe Boyle and Colson were and are acting in the same spirit of that bill. In fact, maybe Boyle and Colson have paid them more than they're letting on because they don't want the family put in jeopardy with people trying to steal their money. Of course, recent reports of the children still living in abject poverty don't give much support to this hope, but it's possible. However, we can never know until we get answers and so far we're just getting the runaround. I have sent an e-mail to Fox Distribution but have received nothing back. I will try again. My e-mail request was simple: How much, specifically in total monetary terms, were they paid?

I am not here to judge one way or the other, and cannot until I have enough evidence to make any kind of a reasonable judgment. Twenty plus years down the road and Paul Simon is still occasionally put on the defensive when discussing Graceland, most recently due to Los Lobos saying he stole their music, and there is still no resolution. But in 1986 they didn't have blogs. Now we do. Perhaps if some of the bigger ones got involved, say Jim Emerson or Roger Ebert, we could get some answers. Rick Olson, Pat Piper and myself have now posted on this but we are little fish indeed in this big movie blogging pond. Bigger fish would greatly increase the odds of getting an answer and putting this to rest. Until then, many people have a bad taste in their mouths. A taste of exploitation, and it won't go away without answers. Look once again at Graceland. I personally think Paul Simon felt the political statement was the act itself of employing the South African musicians. As for the rest of the controversy, I think Simon is an artist who, like so many, wanted to do something and didn't think all the political or social repercussions through. Where Simon appears different than Boyle and Colson is he never questioned how much money his musicians should be paid. Just because they weren't American musicians didn't mean they shouldn't get union scale, and in their case, three times that. The rest of the controversy lies in misconceptions and differences of opinion. With Slumdog Millionaire, the controversy lies in the payment, period. All that is required to completely and resolutely squash the controversy is for someone to pay Rubina Ali and Azharuddin Ismail their fair share, and if they plan on doing so with a trust fund, or have already done so, tell the press. That's it. That's all they need to do. Why is that so hard? Fox Distribution, Boyle and Colson, feel free to use a lifeline, call a friend, get an audience vote, do whatever you need to do but give us an answer. And as time is running out, we're going to need it to be your final answer. Thanks.

*****Post Script*****

I was going to use quotes from my fellow bloggers in this piece but decided it would be best if they were read in the context they were written. Rick Olson has already written about this twice and in the comment section here there is an excellent discussion of much that is perceived to be wrong with this situation.