Friday, 16 January 2009

Slumdog Millionaire and the inevitable backlash

The knives are sharpening for ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. In the last week, I have read articles pertaining to the following:

-The author, Vikas Swarup, is a diplomat, and spent an entire article being diplomatic about the film of his book. Neither for or against really. He understood the changes made to his original text. He was dubious only about one thing. In the film, Jamal’s mother dies because of Hindu/Muslim violence. He wonders how that will play to Indian crowds, anxious to sweep such racist atrocities under the carpet. This makes his diplomatic nerves flurry a bit. Apart from that, thanks for the changes including the name of the character to make him less everyman; the dramatic structure; and the name, which contains a theme now. It brings poverty and the slums to the fore, in a way an oxymoron that transforms the piece into a something magical.
- The great Amitabh Bachchan blogged about how this piece showed India in a bad light. He said, "If Slumdog Millionaire projects India as a third-world, dirty, underbelly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky underbelly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations," adding "It's just that the Slumdog Millionaire idea, authored by an Indian and conceived and cinematically put together by a westerner, gets creative global recognition.” I think Bachchan misses the point. This is a good thing for Indian cinema and if anything, adding Western grit to these magical tales makes them more palatable to a Western/wider audience not au fait with saccharine stories of middle class India having slapstick problems. Incidentally, Big B, I now subscribe to your blog and if anything, I think it’s mighty rich of you, an arrogant man with a god-complex apparent in your entries, to complain about the negative portrayal of the slums. Aby Baby, you live in a bubble. People actually physically worship you. You tried to do Western films but you don’t have the chops. Sorry man, you were amazing in the 70s but now, you’re an institution that seems to have transcended basic humanity.
- The fractuous Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal, ashamed of his race at the best of times, weighed in with an article about his embarrassment and contempt at Bollywood and how ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ could only have been made by a Westerner. He says: ‘Bollywood producers, fixated with making flimsy films about the lives of the middle class, will never throw their weight behind such projects. Like Bachchan, they are too blind to what India really is to deal with it. Poor Indians, like those in Slumdog, do not constitute India's "murky underbelly" as Bachchan moronically describes them. They, in fact, are the nation. Over 80% of Indians live on less than $2.50 (£1.70) a day; 40% on less than $1.25. A third of the world's poorest people are Indian, as are 40% of all malnourished children. In Mumbai alone, 2.6 million children live on the street or in slums, and 400,000 work in prostitution. But these people are absent from mainstream Bollywood cinema.’ Nirpal, even though you’re ashamed to be Indian and yet use your Indianness to get you articles where you’re the poster-boy for institutional racist attitudes, I can’t help but agree with you in this instance. Bollywood would never have touched ‘Slumdog.’ Look at Mira Nair and how she has made films in India yet existed outside the mainstream, being lauded in artsy crowds up and down the lefty liberal middle class of the West, same with Deepa Mehta. Both making arty films about real-life. Deepa made one of India’s only films dealing with homosexuality. Mira Nair made the ultimate film about Bombay slum life, ‘Salaam Bombay.’

Which brings me to the crux of the matter. ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is not the accurate realistic portrayal of the harshness of Bombay life people think it is. If you want realism, check out the aforementioned ‘Salaam Bombay.’ All ‘Slumdog’ is is a masterful triumph-over-adversity tale, if anything, it’s akin to Bollywood in that they both have an aspirational storyline that will unite people in wanting to have it happen to them. Bollywood exists on this plane where people covet the life. ‘Slumdog’ is about that life being possible to even the biggest down-and-out everyman. Thus it exists in fable and fantasy. The film relies heavily on coincidence, a magical conceit. Let’s not forget, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is an amazing film of magical proportions that touches on the subject of poverty but never really grapples with it as it’s an expositional device for the character to literally go from rags to riches. Danny Boyle doesn’t feel it is rooted in realism either. It is a fable. It could only have been made by a Westerner, yes, and much as it is a wonderful film, it is a fable set in an exotic location, one we’ve never really seen in the Western world, which is why everyone’s so anxious to jump on the slum bandwagon. Ultimately, this is a film about triumph over adversity, and I hope it triumphs over the naysayers who seek to knock it down because of its success.

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