I've heard three kinds of complaints about the Oscar-winning film, Slumdog Millionaire. Here's my rebuttal to each criticism, because guess what? I liked the film.
Of course it was improbable, Mr. Rushdie. Escapist fantasy mandates good triumphing over evil. One can survive a crawl from a toilet through excrement thanks to the power of love, while the love of power leads to death in a bathroom.
The torture and suffering of children don't make it an easy view, so did Slumdog use poverty, orphans, and children as lazy storytelling techniques to elicit compassion and connection from rich viewers? What was it like to view it as a resident in Mumbai's Juhu slum, where much of the film was shot?
The "poverty porn" accusation did give me pause, but after reflection, I don't believe the film made this fatal error. The first reason is because it was a fairy tale, which requires an amping up of villainy and suffering before arriving at the eventual happy ending. The residents of Juhu seem to get this, and are celebrating the film's success.
Second, I felt the story ultimately respected children, and that's the main reason I enjoyed it. Slumdog makes it clear that children with or without power and privilege in every corner of the planet dream, love, laugh, err, forgive, weep, and make heartbreaking moral choices.
In a world that consistently overlooks, undervalues, and demeans children, what's wrong with that?
As I left the theater, I pictured the countless young faces I'd passed by in the slums and streets of Bengal, regretting that I hadn't taken the time to hear and know and share their stories, and hoping to have another chance someday.
(3) "A western view of India."
Let's say instead that Slumdog offers a between-cultures view of humanity.
England's Simon Beaufoy adapted India's Vikas Swarup's Q&A, bringing a stronger narrative arc to what was a collection of short stories. Swarup, a high-flying diplomat based in Pretoria, supported Beaufoy's screenplay despite some key changes made to his book. (Most intriguing was a switch in the main character's name, changed from the "every Indian" Hindu-Muslim-Christian Ram Mohammad Thomas to Jamal Malik, resulting in the boy's Muslim mother being killed by Hindus.)
Another cross-cultural partnership took place in the directing. The film's co-director, Loveleen Tandan (who worked on Namesake and Monsoon Wedding with Mira Nair), negotiated back and forth with Danny Boyle, melding the best storytelling techniques from both worlds to create a universal fairy tale.
My parents saw the film in California last week, and I asked if they thought it made India look bad.
"Not at all," my Mom retorted with pride. "What other country in the world could develop so far and so fast given so much poverty and corruption to overcome? Only our India."
Her main criticism was with A.R. Rahman's soundtrack. An accomplished harmonium player and singer, Ma felt the award-winning soundtrack didn't resonate enough with the richness and depth of classical Indian music. That response, of course, reflects a generational difference around music that's taking place both in India and in the west.
My only niggle with the film? Latika's gradual loss of spunk and verve throughout the story, resulting in yet another portrayal of a helpless South Asian female victimized and rescued by men. Sigh. Enough said.
Otherwise, it was a feel-good between-cultures fantasy that respected children and showed off the strength and creativity of my country of origin. What's not to like?