Friday, February 27, 2009

Why I'm A Slumdog Fan

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.

(1) "Unrealistic."

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.

(2) "Exploitative."

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?

Hmmm.

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?

9 comments:

sarah park said...

I wish there was like "LIKE" feature here like on Facebook. How about LOVE IT? :)

Suzi W. said...

I thought it was a very imaginative way to tell a story. I've seen poverty that intense and it was a part of the story, so it didn't shock me. Good point about Latika, though.

I loved how he just guessed at the name of the third musketeer.

Anonymous said...

Well said Ms. Perkins and you tackled it perfectly. I was born and brought up in Bangladesh and I found the story very realistic in the sense of showing the real India without even hesitating about it. And there is also a message behind the movie that there are talented in those slums as well!

Suzi W. said...

Also (now having read the links) the one thing that the articles seem to forget is the reason he got on Millionaire was b/c he thought it would be a way to connect back to Latika, because she watched it for the escapism. So the "get rich quick" was not part of his dream, it was "get the girl." Whenever I read critics, I remember the line from Sweet Home Alabama where Patrick Dempsey says "They're critics, honey. They hate themselves."

Thanks for your review, Mitali.

Monica Edinger said...

Mitali, thank you so much for this. I just posted a linkg here from my blog.

susan said...

Mitali,

Well said. I agree with you on all points. I live among a large Indian population and therefore gotten a closer window into a rich culture I admire and am very interested in learning more about. I wish Latika was a stronger character, but like you pointed out this was a twist on a fairy tale so the traditional characterization is not surprising.

I'm linking this as well.

The Floating Lush said...

Oh, I'm so glad you liked it! I really enjoyed both the book and the movie, and I've been recommending them both shamelessly to all my friends and acquaintances--I even got my library system to purchase the (reissued movie tie-in) novel.

I understand and appreciate why some people are upset at the portrayal of India in the movie and book, but I think you address the points well in your defense of the movie.

Hopefully this can be a "gateway film" for Americans to discover the richness of Indian cinema, in all its varieties.

(I have a massive head cold, so please excuse any wandering vagueness in my comments.)

Bethany said...

My daughters and I just watched this movie last night, and one of my first thoughts this morning was to see if you had seen it and what you thought. I thought it was "unrealistic" but only insofar as the happy ending part. The poverty and exploitation of children shown in the movie happens, unfortunately not only in India but all over the world, including inside abusive homes and in certain enclaves here in the U.S. Anyway, I thought it was a very well made film that told a good story.

Sherry Early said...

Ouch, not Bethany, but me, Sherry from Semicolon.

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