Okay, so we haven't talked about it here despite the hoopla. Slumdog Millionaire that is. But today I came across this hilarious video that is worth posting. I am flummoxed by the mass appeal of the movie which swept this year's Oscars and a bit amused when people ask me slightly breathlessly if I am happy about its stupendous success. Friends of my age haven't bothered but two young people at my gym made the friendly overture of mentioning the Oscars "miracle" to me. I am wondering if other Indian Americans are being asked about Slumdog too.
I know, I know, it is just a harmless icebreaker. I thought it was cute that the two young acquaintances approached me with a smile and kind of "congratulated" me for the success of Slumdog. Of the three, only I had hated the movie. And why didn't the film sit well with me? Well, not because it exposed the seamy side of India Shining. India is a huge, complex and multi-faceted country. People anywhere can believe what they wish about India. I myself harbor many complaints and much anger in my heart about the inequities of Indian society. What director Danny Boyle showed in the movie about the heartbreaking squalor of Indian slum life is exaggerated but not entirely incorrect. But that is not what the movie is about and why it won awards and accolades. It was the puerile, unrealistic and gaudy triumph of the underdog in the story that made it a hit - with just enough sexual tension, cruelty and filth thrown in the mix to complete the image of India that appeals to much of the world. Here is Indian journalist Tarun Tejpal expanding on what I said. (link: Usha Alexander, another non-fan of the Slumdog)
One feels awe not for the film, but for its miraculous journey. Clearly, in an increasingly low-brow ocean of publicity and hype, the idea of true excellence is a drowned raft.
Not shorn of the hype, but because of it, to an Indian, the film ought to disappoint. It tells me nothing that I don’t already know; and it tells me things I know to be not true. Unlike Amitabh Bachchan I have no problems with the film focusing on India’s abject poverty. That focus is salutary, and crying out for further exploration. My problem is the opposite— that it trivialises it. Uses its excreta and chopped limbs to tell a dubious story that leaves the viewer not disturbed but cheerfully smug. You leave the seat exhilarated, not in pain.
The film tells a very big lie: that India’s poor have a happy shot at leaping out of their misery into affluence and joy. One day you can be in the crap heap — diving into excreta — and the next running down a slum girl who may have failed to make school but seems to have managed to walk through Vogue’s offices on her way to teenage. With a stunning lack of plausibility you see the slum child Jamaal grow into a refined public schoolboy who must surely be eating cucumber sandwiches for lunch. India’s wannabe wealthy — billionaires among them — would slice their fingers to boast such a sophisticated son. For that accent alone, they would throw in their toes too.
Aw! Gee! The camera is shaking, the story is sprinting — there is no way anyone can tell if a few chapters have fallen out, several links of logic lost. You have to be grateful Jamal only grows up to be Dev Patel. Given the absence of any need to explain the miraculous transformation, he could well have become Brad Pitt or Prince Charles. To further celebrate the carnival of implausibility, Master Dev acts with the cool flatness of the cucumber sandwich (that he surely must be eating) — no neuroses of the slums tarnishing his soul.
For those celebrating the authenticity of the film, here’s a secret: the makers clearly had no interest in verisimilitude. It’s been the rough approach of artists working the India material for the last hundred years. It arises from a clear understanding of “audience”. The awgee mobs filling theatres around the world, and paying in dollars or some such muscular currency, cannot tell the difference between Hindi and Hindu or the vast distance between Mumbai and Agra. Much like the American tourists at the Taj Mahal, who cannot distinguish between an unlettered, ignorant urchin and a licensed guide.
Update: I wonder if African-Americans are becoming similarly wary of being congratulated on Obama's election to the presidency. Apparently,they are :-)