In the wake of Slumdog Millionaire receiving no less than ten Oscar nominations arrived the inevitable hard-eyed scrutiny about what kind of film it is, and whether it deserves our support or disdain. Let me be upfront and direct about my view: the film is entertaining, colorful, and loaded with enough “exotic” to satisfy Kipling. It is, however, as some have appropriately labeled it, “tourist porn.”
Certainly no film has to be a call to action. But it’s worth knowing what exactly Slumdog Millionaire asks of its viewers. A look at Fernando Meirelles’ Cidade de Deus (2002) is instructive. In that film, viewers were exposed to the innards of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, and life there, as in Mumbai’s slums, is hard-scrabble, brutishly short, and intensely violent. But where Meirelles maintains a director’s distance from both the actors and the story itself, Danny Boyle’s approach seems to be that of a circus ringleader. You can practically hear him in the background, yelling, “Welcome to the Greatest Show on Earth!” with every fast-action cut and crop, every stereotypical character, and every dollop of excrement. Just imagine if he could have added the smells of the slums to the theater.
The difference? I didn’t leave Cidade de Deus feeling comfortable about poverty in Brazil, or wanting to be a gangsta in Rio, or smug in my sense of security. I left thinking it was a damn good movie that made me think about the multiple personalities that inhabit a city, about being a kid and wanting to be cool, and about the glorification and numbness of violence. I left Slumdog thinking of a better ending, and bored by Dev Patel’s slightly cross-eyed stare. There is (intentional) Bollywood in Slumdog Millionaire, fine, but what is interesting is that in some bizarre twist of logic, pro-Slumdog commentators, including Anil Kapoor, one of the actors in the film, are couching the movie’s value in terms of the “hope” it offers to, one assumes, the millions of slumdwellers in India.
This is at best a poorly considered lie. Film generally in India, and in particular those made in Bollywood fashion, has always been about entertainment for the masses, and not about offering hope. Hope (with apologies to 44) is not only a luxury unavailable to most in India; it is nearly as far from every day reality as our imaginations allow. Hope in India comes in the form of an extra 50 paisa piece given through a car window, or a visa to the UK or US that affords escape, or in the next yog. In India, life is more properly about want, not hope. It is about what is achievable versus what is not. Ramachandra Guha wrote an excellent article recently about the true choice in India — between uncontrolled and controlled chaos. You want the latter because it’s the only possibility that allows for survival and you “hope” to avoid the former.
Foreign audiences will of course be shocked and fascinated by the unending baseness of humanity portrayed in Slumdog, and cheered by the cunning survivalism displayed by kids of the street. But the real criticism is not that Slumdog has sold Mumbai’s misery to the West, it’s that the product is of average quality and fetish of the moment. Ultimately, like the good tourists we are, we feel a sense of relief as the credits roll, because the performers are singing and dancing, the ending is a happy one, and we’re just glad that the Starbucks coffee outside will taste the same on the way home.