Is Slumdog Millionaire a portrait of the real India or a stylishly shot collection of clichés?

All about the Academy Awards.
Jan. 26 2009 6:19 PM

What, Exactly, Is Slumdog Millionaire?

Is it a) a portrait of the real India, b) a Bollywood-style melodrama, c) a fairy tale, or d) a stylishly shot collection of clichés?

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Some would argue that Boyle is guilty of aestheticizing poverty. That's a loaded charge, with its own problematic assumption about what poverty should look like. I would contend that the movie's real sin is not its surfeit of style but the fact that its style is in service of so very little. The flimsiness of Beaufoy's scenario, a jumble of one-note characterizations and rank implausibility, makes Boyle's exertions seem ornamental, even decadent. Beaufoy has suggested that Mumbai itself inspired this narrative sloppiness: "Tonally it shouldn't really work," he wrote in the Guardian. "But in Mumbai, not for nothing known as Maximum City, I get away with it." This is a corollary to the all-too-easy defense that Slumdog is awash in clichés because it is an homage to Bollywood movies. The resemblance, in any case, is superficial. Some of Slumdog's melodramatic tropes are Bollywood (and Old Hollywood) staples, but the limp dance number that closes the film lacks both the technique and the energy of vintage Bollywood.

If Slumdog has struck a chord, and it certainly seems to have done so in the West, it is not because the film is some newfangled post-globalization hybrid but precisely because there is nothing new about it. It traffics in some of the oldest stereotypes of the exoticized Other: the streetwise urchin in the teeming Oriental city. (The success of Slumdog has apparently given a boost to the dubious pastime of slum tourism—or "poorism," as it's also known.) And not least for American audiences, it offers the age-old fantasy of class and economic mobility, at a safe remove that for now may be the best way to indulge in it.

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Eager to crank up the zeitgeist-y significance, the marketing machine at Fox Searchlight, which ended up buying Slumdog, toldNew York magazine that "the film is Obama-like," for its "message of hope in the face of difficulty." (Other journalists have since picked up on the meme.) Slumdog has been so insistently hyped as an uplifting experience ("the feel-good film of the decade!" screams the British poster) that it is also, by now, a movie that pre-empts debate. It comes with a built-in, catchall defense—it's a fairy tale, and any attempt to engage with it in terms of, say, its ethics or politics gets written off as political correctness.

A slippery and self-conscious concoction, Slumdog has it both ways. It makes a show of being anchored in a real-world social context, then asks to be read as a fantasy. It ladles on brutality only to dispel it with frivolity. The film's evasiveness is especially dismaying when compared with the purpose and clarity of urban-poverty fables like Luis Bunuel's Los Olvidados, set among Mexico City street kids, or Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, set in inner-city Los Angeles. It's hard to fault Slumdog for what it is not and never tries to be. But what it is—a simulation of "the real India," which it hasn't bothered to populate with real people—is dissonant to the point of incoherence.

Dennis Lim is editorial director at the Museum of the Moving Image and a regular contributor to the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

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