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« The Little Known Gateway to America | Main | Travellers (Sujatha) »

March 05, 2009

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Andrew and I, as well, felt, as the young folk say, "meh" about Slumdog Millionaire. The film didn't strike me, in any profound way, as culturally specific: I saw it as a trite Horatio Alger yarn dressed up in saris. As both you and Tejpal note, Ruchira, it's that underlying, universal story that stands out as the film's main point and cause for celebration.

Watching Slumdog Millionaire made me reflect how, under the right circumstances, universal stories transposed with superficial cultural specificity can be brilliant. Andrew and I recently watched on DVD Ang Lee's subtle, thoughtful film about the romantic and family relationships of a father and his three daughters, "Eat Drink Man Woman." One of the special features on the DVD was an interview with Ang Lee and with James Schamus, who co-wrote the script, which was in Taiwanese with English subtitles. Schamus, who is American Jewish, talked about how when he first began work, he studied up on Chinese culture and history, read about Confucianism, and otherwise made a diligent effort to "do his homework." Lee rejected the resulting script draft as forced and inauthentic. Schamus then gave up on the homework approach, and mentally substituted in the American Jewish families he knew from his own background, giving the characters names like "Muriel" and "Saul" in his mind while scripting dialogue for them. Lee read the script and pronounced it "very Chinese." In Lee's hands, it is. Regardless of any parallels in Chinese and Jewish culture and family dynamics, an understated and very human script allows the actors, settings, and direction to tell a story that provides an enormous amount of insight into Taiwanese life.

Kurosawa's Ikiru ("To Live") which translates Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich into a story of the life and death of a Japanese salaryman, is another example of the use of a story "bridge" to shine a light on both a particular culture and universal human experience. In the opposite direction, the Magnificent Seven, from Kurosawa's Seven Samurai-- a Western take on a Japanese take on a Western-- captures why the American cowboy narrative (flawed and troubling as it may be, in some ways) has been so resonant and durable in both America and abroad.

The problem, for me, of Slumdog millionaire is that its Western rags-to-riches story, which may well also be a story of "India's wannabe wealthy," is to my mind cruel, for the reasons Ruchira and Tejpal point out, and therefore ugly. The siren's song of such stories-- as, in the disability world, the story of the "supercrip" who overcomes polio-induced paralysis to climb Everest-- has always been, "there's nothing in the world that hard work and true love can't overcome." The corollary message is, "what's wrong with you [fill in category of people who need assistance]? Can't you try harder?"

Angry me thinks that Hollywood loves eats this stuff up precisely because it indulges its liberal self-identification without making it feel uncomfortable about inaction: "We're rooting for you, you poor Delhi kids-- we even gave a film about your people an award-- you can do anything if you try and through the miracle of reality TV-- cheers!"

Less angry me thinks, "well, that was fine. File with, 30s escapist fantasies. Move on."

After reading your and Anna's take on the movie ( which I haven't yet seen, waiting for it be available on Netflix), I suspect that my daughter's film noir take on the hoopla bears all the 'winning' elements of how to Bollywoodize Hollywood.
This story would have played just as well had it been translated to the slums of 'Fill-in-the-country-of-choice', throw in a few exoticisms associated with said country, and you have the 'feel good' movie of the year!

The 'this story' I was referring to in my last line is the one of 'Slumdog Millionaire', not my daughter's oeuvre. Hers is the stuff of Fargo brothers' dreams of making a Bollywood style blast, if they would only throw in a couple of bhangras, group dances and AR Rahman soundtracks.

I finally gave in and saw it. Very bland. Seemed to directly borrow from the superior film "City of God"...which was Brazilian, I think. The latter film was harrowing, human...never relied on cheap plot contrivances. Slumdog just felt exploitive. "Hmmm...we'd like to create a formulaic underdog story. Maybe if we have scenes where kids get hurt it will up the drama factor."

That's interesting what you say about universal stories set in specific cultures, Anna. I totally agree. I think it's generally the case that if you have a real story with universal themes, it can be (and does get) adapted to almost any culture, if the writers aren't just piling signs of the culture on top, but are transplanting the essence of the material and letting it grow organically within the new context. To your list I'd like to add the 2008 Merchant Ivory film "Before the Rains," set in Kerala in the 1930s. While the film may not be perfect in every measure (and I realize that some people just can't stand Merchant Ivory for whatever reason), it was astounding to me when I learned, after viewing it, that the story was so seamlessly adapted from an Israeli short film about Jews and Bedouins. But the story is about power and the way human lives are ground between when cultures are set in systematic hierarchies and oppositions, and the Indian director worked with the Israeli writer and made it Indian. And throughout the film, Kerala never stops looking stunningly, brilliantly, lushly beautiful, another kind of Indian cliché.

Slumdog, of course, was a story written by an Indian (Vikas Swarup), although heavily adapted by a British screenwriter and director, at least the latter of whom apparently didn't know a thing about India and had never been there. I think the essential failings of Slumdog haven't to do with its Indian-ness, or lack thereof, and more to do with it just being a ridiculous and, frankly, dumb story, Indian, Western, or otherwise, for all the reasons listed in this discussion and probably more. It was probably drivel to begin with. (I haven't read the book Q&A, but in a Guardian interview, Swarup says, "I don't know if it's true that there are beggar masters who blind children to make them more effective when they beg on the streets. It may be an urban myth, but it's useful to my story." What kind of story-telling is that?) What Danny Boyle did was try to give it the punch of depth, meaning, and intensity by pouring on the break-your-heart-feel-alive images of destitution that India so readily provides. But it's a contrived and artificial veneer to the non-story and so becomes emotionally inauthentic and manipulative.

M mentions "City of God," which is one of the most brilliantly devastating films I've ever seen. It was also a kind of rags-to-riches story (although, the riches are not huge, to be sure. But the narrator grows up to escape the slum and make a better life for himself). I have no idea how they made it, but what comes through in it is that it's true—not, of course "true" in the sense of "historically and factually literal," but humanly true, emotionally true. And, as M points out, never tries to pull tears or prod us with cheap tricks. It is authentically shocking and moving.

Great title for this post, too, Ruchira!

I haven't seen it; I probably will eventually. A couple of my friends (one of whom is Indian) saw it early on and liked it a lot, which makes me wonder to what extent timing might be playing a role in reactions to the film. When it was relatively unknown, it exceeded expectations, but when it's the big thing, it's disappointing?

Also, movies in general are unrealistic (by which I mean "realistic" ones, i.e. [based on a glance at my bookshelf] Good Will Hunting or Garden State, not Pirates of the Caribbean or the Golden Compass). Is the problem here that it tells an unrealistic story about India, with which Western audiences are unfamiliar (and will therefore get the wrong idea about actual conditions)?

Watch it Joe. And tell me what you think.

I saw the movie fairly early after its release, going by the recommendations of others, both Indian and non-Indians, who had enjoyed it. And I didn't like it. At the end of the show, when the credits were rolling, my husband and I made a dash for the exit before everyone else left the seats. The audience of mostly non Indians in the suburban theater was clapping enthusiastically while we were skedaddling out of there.

I am not sure what the appeal of Slumdog is. It is not quite documentary nor is it a flat out fantasy like the Pirates of the Caribbean. Danny Boyle takes the backdrop of the poverty ridden under belly of urban India and mixes truth and exaggerations liberally. The acting is mediocre, the story line weak and the message very childish. In fact, the closest analogy to the cinematic style I can come up with are with those of the average Hindi pot boiler that Bollywood in India churns out year after year. I stopped watching those inane song and dance extravaganzas some time ago even for purely nostalgic reasons. Slumdog disappointed me in a similar way.

I don't think the film makers themselves were attempting a serious social commentary about India. They saw a formulaic and exotic story and an opportunity to cash in on a trite idea. They probably had little expectation that it would reverberate so loudly with the public. However, I do fear that many others have indeed seen depths in Slumdog that do not exist and some others are shamelessly cashing in. I think the brick bats it has received from serious critics are well deserved in light of having garnered undeserved kudos and the astounding eight Oscars.

I stayed away from discussing this film even when it won all those Oscars and I was asked about the phenomenon by others. The only reason I brought it up on A.B. at last is the hilarious video depicting the average American conflating the success of the movie with general Indian pride.


I'm so movie illiterate. Haven't seen one in nearly decades, mostly because I can't sit still for fifteen minutes of any of them, let alone Oscar nominated ones. But I do have a soft spot for what Anna refers to as "universal stories transposed with superficial cultural specificity," inasmuch as Blazing Saddles--in many ways, the paradigm of the cinematic (f)art--is the highest of achievers in that regard.

Gotta quibble with Terun Tejpal and this: "For those celebrating the authenticity of the film, here’s a secret: the makers clearly had no interest in verisimilitude." Authenticity and verisimilitude are two quite different qualities, and very much in tension. The latter is inherently inauthentic, having to do with the appearance of similarity, while the former often imputes reality, actuality, genuineness. But authenticity is a troubled concept these days, due in part to the easy satisfactions of infinite supplies of verisimilitude.

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