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?

Slumdog Millionaire.
Slumdog Millionaire

"You wanted to see the real India? Here it is," the young Indian hero of Slumdog Millionaire tells an American couple, right after they find that their rental car has been stripped for parts. The winking come-on of Danny Boyle's Oscar-nominated hit is precisely that—see the real India—but this is a movie with a conveniently fluid notion of reality. In this fairytale vision of squalid poverty, the slums of Mumbai are bathed in golden light, and hardscrabble lives are energized by jacked-up camerawork and the cool, cosmopolitan pop of M.I.A. on the soundtrack. We see the real-world horrors that might befall a kid from these parts—begging syndicates, religious violence, abusive cops—but experience them simply as plot contrivances, hurdles to be cleared as we wait for him to get the girl and go from rags to riches while he's at it.

Slumdog is nothing if not a transglobal movie—funded with British and American money, shot entirely in India by a British director with a largely Indian cast and crew, from a script by a British writer adapting a novel by a London-born Indian author—and it's instructive to compare the reactions from around the world.

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Premiering at the big North American film festivals at Telluride and Toronto last fall, Slumdog was crowned an underdog Oscar contender, a film that could go from barely getting a release (its original distributor, Warner Independent, folded last year) to the ultimate Hollywood jackpot, just as its hero, Jamal, makes his way from the slums to the biggest prize on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire.

While the film won near-unanimous praise when it opened here in November, in the United Kingdom, thanks perhaps to residual colonial guilt, there were a few more dissenting voices. A columnist at the London Times called it "poverty porn," bringing up the question of exploitation that has largely been elided in stateside discussions.

And in India, where Slumdog opened last week, the debate has been vigorous. Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan, the focal point of a key scene in Slumdog (he doesn't actually appear), wondered on his blog if the film would have received as much attention had it been made by an Indian director. Some locals have questioned its selective portrait of Mumbai, which ignores the middle class. Some slum residents, meanwhile, have taken exception to being called "slumdogs" (a term invented by screenwriter Simon Beaufoy; the original novel, by Vikas Swarup, is called Q&A). Despite all this pre-release publicity and mostly positive reviews, Indian audiences have so far stayed away.

It is understandable that the conversation has taken on a more serious tone in India, which has long been sensitive to depictions, by Indians and outsiders alike, of its lower socioeconomic classes. The great Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray was criticized in Parliament for "exporting poverty." When the BBC aired French director Louis Malle's Phantom India, an epic travelogue that sought to capture the contradictions and complexities of Indian society, it led to a minor international incident, culminating in the expulsion of the BBC's New Delhi bureau.

The slums in Slumdog Millionaire are brighter and livelier than any we've seen before. Boyle is a gifted stylist and, for better or worse, an indiscriminate sensualist, the kind of filmmaker capable of finding tactile pleasure wherever he looks, from the junkie deliriums of Trainspotting to the cosmic reveries of Sunshine. For Boyle the director, the slums are above all an endless source of motion and color. The scene that best sums up his attitude comes early in the film, when young Jamal, stuck in an outhouse but determined to obtain Amitabh Bachchan's autograph, holds his nose and (in a nod to the famous toilet-bowl interlude in Trainspotting) gleefully dives into the outdoor latrine.

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.

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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