Monday, January 12, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Watched Slumdog Millionaire and not sure exactly how I felt about it. Among the slew of reviews of the movie a couple made the most sense to me. One is by Shobha De and the other by Scott Mendelson. I found myself agreeing with some of the things the two have said though they approach the movie and react to it in completely different ways

Mendelson gets to the heart of the matter - the business of knowledge, the new tools available to acquire and recall it at will and therefore the revelance of knowledge itself. The protagonist of Slumdog Millionaire learned everything he did merely trying to stay alive in unrelentingly harsh circumstances.He had no real education but that did not stop him from acing the biggest trivia challenge - Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. So Mendelson poses a few questions :

There has been an ongoing debate for the last several years about the very concept of knowledge. With the advances of the internet and billions of people literally having any piece of information at their fingertips, what is the real benefit of knowledge? Why teach children facts when they can look them up in five seconds on Wikipedia or Google?

Then there is De who expresses the two conflicting emotions that any desi will feel watching this movie. Numbed by the brutal portrayal of the lives of India's slum-dwelling children and an urge to defend their country from being depicted in such sordid light by a foreigner. This a much like the reaction a lot of us had while watching City of Joy many years ago. To Danny Boyle's credit, he introduces a fairy-tale element which is greatly helped by A.R Rahman's magical music to blunt the edges of something inherently raw. To quote Ms De :

Mumbai's ugly secrets stand exposed... its many wounds are displayed right up there, for the world to see. One part of me said, ''I wish he hadn't made this film and stripped my city so cruelly.... revealed its nakedness..." The other part was protesting.... wildly protesting. I hated Boyle's portrayal of Mumbai .... felt protective, felt betrayed.... but also felt the truth. Which is why it hurt. Continues to hurt.

When it comes to movies like Slumdog or City of Joy it is specially hard for an Indian to remain completely objective while making their case for or against it. To a certain extent, we feel exposed, vulnerable and exploited by the West when they open up our country's underbelly for the world to see and recoil at. We want them to show a more balanced picture of India - our country does not begin and end in Dharavi we want to argue. We don't want to judged as a people by the rest of world based on impressions they form by watching such movies. We clamor for a resounding counterpoint and so there is India Shining.

I almost felt grateful to Boyle for ending the movie with a Bollywood style choreographed dance on the platform of a railway station - lending a sense of make-believe and fantastical to it all. Just that helped restore some dignity to an otherwise gut-wrenching depiction of a country whose poor live and die in conditions that the rest find too horrifying to even accept as reality.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

A fact (knowing a fact = knowledge) may not have a lot of relevance in itself but the human mind can combine multiple facts to form a bigger picture.
Ex: if one knew that the great depression happened in 1929 and and that unemployment was at ~25% then when you look at current unemployment figures of 7.2% you have a sense of perspective. This is just a simple example.

sinusoidally said...

Even though our country does not start and end at Dharavi, it is just one of the many realities of our country. And that is the truth. He showed the mafia, the ac cars, big bunglows too in the movies...to me he showed the real India. Btw did you know those small versions of Jamal and Latika are actually children from the slums?

TTG said...

There is one thing I am confused about - and this question goes out to everyone -

Just that helped restore some dignity to an otherwise gut-wrenching depiction of a country whose poor live and die in conditions that the rest find too horrifying to even accept as reality.

What proof does anyone have that what was shown in the movie was reality - I am just curious. Why do we take the director's story as the word of God? Because all of us have 'heard' something or the other. But have you actually seen it?

Does somebody really crawl through shit to get an autograph of Amitabh Bachchan? It's not a question of being too horrifying to believe, it's simply a question of is this true. More horrifying things than qualifying through shit happen in India all the time. But the question again is - is this person's depiction of India - "the Real India?" I am not saying poor people live in 5-star hotels in India and eat their food out of silver platters - simply wondering why we all take this person's depiction as the truth.

Sirensongs said...

"We want them to show a more balanced picture of India - our country does not begin and end in Dharavi we want to argue. We don't want to judged as a people by the rest of world based on impressions they form by watching such movies."

More fantasy, more sugar coating in the name of "balance"? Hyped-up western press accounts of the "new India" are all we've gotten. Hilarious, the writer ends with gratitude for the "make believe and fantasy" ending tacked on. I thought the ending was mocking Indian media's penchant for silly dance routines amid feudal cruelty.

Sirensongs said...

In answer to TTG:
SOME people take the director's vision as "truth" because they are not clear on the concept of what a movie is. It's like believing everything you read or see on TV. There is no "proof that it is reality" as it is not a documentary film and never claims to be.

No one seems to question the insane Bollywood storylines, though they have never "actually seen" them either.

Heartcrossings said...

Anon - Point taken about knowledge in the raw and applied knowledge. But a trivia challenge is about the raw and not applied and therefore the questions in the time of Google and Wikipedia

Sinusoidally - I think as desis we all struggle with the concept of "real" India. We each have our own and often it does not intersect with that of the others. The movie is about kids from slums and everything else comes about incidentally.It is not about middle-class India to which a lot of us who write belong to.Naturally, we have not "lived" the conditions being depicted. We have seen things close enough however to believe it is possible.

TTG - One must I suppose allow for creative license and hyperbole in a work of fiction. Jumping through a cesspool of shit to get an Amitabh Bacchan autograph to me symbolizes the extent to which superstars are idolized by those who help make their success stories even possible. I would not take it literally. The depiction of sanitary conditions are however true.

Sirensongs - It is not an issue of whether the storyline is true or not. We understand that it is based on truth as a lot of fiction is.

The issue is about being allowed the right to keep a little of your dignity as a people. It is also perhaps one of low self-esteem. We get concerned about what others might think of our country and our people.

Since we are the ones who come West to earn a living and not the other way around - the social perception of us is therefore important. Who does not want to be viewed by a foreigner in the most favorable light ? It does not help for the average foreigner to think of slums the moment they set eyes on a desi.

Likewise, it does not help for them to assume Satyam is the gold standard by which all Indian companies operate and it is only a matter of time before the scams of the rest are exposed. We probably have better control over the former than we have over the later.

The reverse is not true. The average person in the West does not have to concern himself being viewed through the lens of the worst of Hollywood and pulp-fiction while in India. He will likely never set foot there. The Indians living in his own country gets to see the "reality" of his life for themselves.

Sure, India has enormous problems - Boyle touches one aspect of it. There are many others equally pressing. To me the story of India is a like a hydra-headed monster - it is impossible to tackle them all.

The bare-bones storylines of mainstream Bollywood flicks are just as possible in India as Slumdog is. The fantasy element to me, is a device to signal the audience not to take everything verbatim.

Slumdog done in the manner of a documentary to keep things "real" would have been insulting. Done the way it was, it provides some respite and allows room for the many other untold stories that India is all about. Boyle deserves credit for this.

workhard said...

i think the portrayal kicks in reality for millions of indians who live in a fantasy world. we are so engrossed in our daily luxurious routines that we fail to acknowledge or even believe that some sections of our societies do live in such shrewd conditions.

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binod said...

Because it is based on the Indian slums and has music scored by the Genius A.R. Rahman!
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