Monday, February 02, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire (Spoiler warning)(Long Post Warning)

I went to see Slumdog Millionaire tonight and for the duration of the film, and right after, I loved it. Will I love it forever? Does it deserve my love? I don't know.

I know one person who didn't like it. We just had an email discussion about it and he said,
"my non-complex reaction to Slumdog was that I just found it boring and badly-directed".
Mind you, he's a director and looks at films very differently than I do. I was not bored during the movie. Even though I usually hate music video-style directing, I really enjoyed the visual energy of SM. The direction - especially the use of music - kept me rapt and tense.

The last time I tried to see the film it was sold out, and I made the racist/ageist comment to my friend that all the old white folk at the condo towers above the cinema were watching it to root for a poor brown guy so they could feel good about themselves. (Yes, as I said, ageist and racist, I know.) This was my only hesitation in watching the film: would I be reinforcing my own stereotypical ideas? Would my feelings of sympathy for "the poor brown guy" protagonist mask some kind of condescension? If I'm going to condescend, I'd rather be aware of it and upfront about it.

It's hard for me to unravel all the potential angles on Slumdog. Is it cultural appropriation? I haven't read the book ("Q&A") by Vikas Swarup, but according to this review, I don't think Danny Boyle strayed very far from the original story. Also, I get really bitchy when people narrow down the ownership of a story, so I would not bash Boyle's telling of this story just 'cause he's white. (Or looks white, anyhow.)

Does this film make me feel better because it represents the avenues for a poor person to escape the slums? No. I don't think it does represent any avenue to escape the slums. It's fantasy, as evidenced by the emphasis on "destiny" in the film. The movie doesn't even preach about education (which I expected it to). It is a fantasy of justice, in a way - though all the rupees in the world won't wipe your childhood trauma nightmares away completely - but I think it is mainly a fantasy about love.

As for whether the film assuages some sort of guilt in me, again, I'd have to say no. I know nothing of the slums of India and do not feel particularly culpable about them. Because I am a bleeding-heart capitalist, my guilt is more focused on whether or not to buy blouses made in China, and how much the workers and the silkworms suffer for them. India is a democracy with a billion people and there are enough people on the ground, so to speak, to deal with the slums. I wouldn't even know how to help India's poor if that was at the forefront of my mind. (Maybe via CARE?)

Do I feel guilty being a white (or white-looking) tourist? No. Those depictions of white tourists were as awkward/potentially offensive as any other depictions in the movie, and yet, I've seen unbelievably idiotic tourist behaviour on my travels, so it's not that weird.

I think people resent having their emotions manipulated, and I think this holds for SM, but having my emotions manipulated is why I go to movies (and engage in art, theatre, music). Yes, my emotions were manipulated by the adorable child actors and by the brutality they endure and survive. Yes, I probably would feel less if they weren't as cute. Armond White, the notoriously independent critic notes,
Over-stimulation crushes feeling; Boyle only evokes sentimentality. His cast of child actors is overly cute—for easy sympathy and for automatic horror when they’re shown being mutilated by adults who run a beggar/prostitution underground.
Does director Danny Boyle evoke sentimentality? Sure. But I didn't feel emotionally swindled. Whatever you think of Jamal the "slumdog", you're not viewing him in a vacuum. India - better educated, richer, poorer, average, honest, and cruel is all around him. Just because the slums include colourful saris doesn't mean I will infer that the slums are fun. I didn't think that was Boyle's intention, anyhow.

I've also read comments online suggesting that the film romanticizes rising out of poverty, but why shouldn't it? What is the alternative? (I ask that sincerely - feel free to respond in the comments.) Is "The Shawshank Redemption" any less uplifting because its portrayal of prison is practically rustic and cozy compared to a modern prison? Should "The Princess Bride" come with a disclaimer that true love has never been verified and that death is rarely reversed?

Jamal's actual arc is to rescue a fair maiden, and he is qualified because he is pure of heart. His gifts or tokens or mentors (which I take to be the answers at the game show) all emerge from past traumas. If he had been motivated by money, he would not have continued the game to the end, and in fact, he would have been his brother (who chooses or is destined to a mobster life).

It seems to me that Jamal already overcame his past in his actual job as a chai-wallah at the call centre. I do not mean to condescend by suggesting that this is an easy job or a fun one, but it beats every other job he had in the film*. And let's face it, would I watch a film about a chai-wallah with a brutal childhood who slaved for years on a meagre salary at a soul-killing job, forever pining about the lost love of his life? Movies that are realistic and leave me worried are important too, but I can't watch The Death of Mr. Lazarescu every day. It is more fun for mainstream me to watch Jamal win the girl and live happily ever after.

It's possible that I've been primed to love this story because one of my favourite books as a young girl was "A Little Princess" by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It is a classic riches-to-rags-to-riches Edwardian melodrama. It has allowed me for years to fantasize that I too could behave with dignity in sudden poverty, that I could remember the best of humanity even while facing the worst, and that I could keep my heart soft and open if life got hard. Is it true? Probably not. But in my mind, this is what "happy ending" stories are for - little crumbs of hope*. Yes, I'll feed my future kids stories of love and justice, in case they face a day when it's all they have to put on their bread. I hope I'll be able to keep them in Nutella, though.

Other criticisms of Slumdog Millionaire are here (on story), and here (on fair compensation controversy).

*Mind you, I'm soft about work. My mother reminds me that when she started working at 15, it didn't matter what the job was, they just needed money. She always speaks of work like that - in terms of being the best you can be at anything you do, and having a good attitude - and she's been working for 55 years.
** And hope, even as an abstract concept, is nothing to sneeze at.

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