Smitha Radhakrishnan discusses Slumdog Millionaire's depiction of India and how the quest for authenticity benefits from an outsider's exploration of fantasy.
Published: Friday, November 28, 2008
Connecting Personal Issues to the Big Picture
Smitha Radhakrishnan has been publishing her podcast Desi Dilemmas from Podbazaar since November of 2005. On August 2007, she joined Asia Pacific Arts. Desi Dilemmas weaves together narratives, opinion, and research with Indians on three continents, to place common issues facing desis in a larger social and economic context.
Questions? Comments? Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Welcome back to Desi Dilemmas! Today we take a look at the film of the moment that is taking off all over America, Slumdog Millionaire, which opens everywhere this weekend.
By now, you're sure to have heard the buzz surrounding Danny Boyle's latest offering, Slumdog Millionaire. Ubiquitous rave reviews have catapulted this film from film festival obscurity to Oscar-contending celebrity. I watched the film on its opening night in Boston, waiting in the 30 degree weather with dozens of other enthusiasts, mostly young and Indian, ready to tough it out in order to see the latest India movie to hit the silver screen. None of us were disappointed. For two hours, we forgot our worlds and became absorbed in Jamal Malik's world. And what an action-packed, devastating, intriguing, and oddly beautiful world it was.
There is much to be said about the film, most of which has already been said in the reviews of this film that are multiplying online by the minute. But I want to reflect upon something that is perhaps easy to overlook: the unexpected advantage of the clear "outsider" status of the filmmaker. In interviews, Danny Boyle said he'd never been to India before shooting this film. But that he took great pains to be culturally sensitive and accurate.
His pains are evident. Each scene of the film is loaded with layers of meaning, there for the taking if you care to look into it. The police brutality that framed the entire plot evoked vividly Suketu Mehta's haunting descriptions of the fine line between police, gang life, and the violence that blurred that line. The anti-Muslim riots that Jamal experiences as a child were recognizable from the very first frame of the scene -- the horrific communal riots that rocked Bombay in late 1991 as a movement of Hindu fundamentalists marched across the country to affirm India as a land of Hindus. You didn't need to know that to appreciate the film, but if you happened to, you recognized how appropriate and historically accurate it was.
When Jamal and Salim live off of conning eager tourists at the Taj Mahal, Boyle perfectly captures the savvy of the young boys and the cluelessness of the tourists. And in his devastating portrayal of organized child begging in urban India, he brings to life some of novelist Rohinton Mistry's most memorable and painful descriptions of impoverished existence in a brutal city.
The film is chalk-full of these kinds of details and insights, but there are some slip-ups too: perhaps deliberate, perhaps not. For me the most glaring was the language. Despite the plausible explanation that Jamal and Salim picked up English, posing as tour guides at the Taj Mahal, it is highly implausible that they would come out of that experience speaking perfect British English, as Dev Patel does in portraying the grown-up Jamal. It's highly implausible that he would speak to Latika and Salim in English as an adult too, but somehow, in the context of the movie, we buy it. Thing is that if he really was as smart and articulate as Jamal was in the film, he definitely would have been making calls at the call center, not just serving chai. The grown-up Jamal was altogether too polished, too beautiful, too clean, and too earnest to have lived the life he did. But again, because we love him by this point, because we believe in his inherent goodness and his ability to overcome obstacles by some essential God-given quality within him that allows him to stand out from the rest, we buy it wholesale.
Anyone who regularly watches movies about India that come out in the US would be no stranger to the hardships that are portrayed in Slumdog. Deepa Mehta's film Water, although set in another time and place, calls to our attention the dire state of child widows in a profoundly patriarchal society. Mira Nair's classic Salaam Bombay offered a much more devastating portrait of the lives of street children. Even in good old City of Joy, with Patrick Swayze saving the leper outcasts of Indian society with all-American generosity and goodwill, we get to witness the stunning horror and unexpected beauty of gritty urban life.
But Danny Boyle's film did something extremely different from all these other films: it did not patronize India, even a little bit. Because it is framed in an unlikely fairy-tale Hollywood-come-Bollywood plot, because it highlights a hero whose individual spirit, we know from the beginning, will triumph over the sorry position in life he was allotted, as viewers, we don't feel sorry for him. Not really. Unlike the main characters in almost every other movie that portrays hardship in India or any other Third World country in order to enlighten the mostly white liberal audiences it is made for, none of the characters in Slumdog are entirely a victim of their circumstances. After his morally defenseless quest for power, Salim redeems himself in the end. Despite her wretched life, Latika ends up in the right place at the right time. Jamal careens inevitably towards his glorious destiny, inspiring millions. (When the old lady tells Jamal "Jake jeet, Jamal! -- Go and win!" could anyone seriously keep a dry eye?).
And although this, in the end, might make for a less accurate, less plausible film, rather than a more accurate, plausible film, the bizarre, unlikely plot has the effect of removing entirely the dynamic of trying to elicit sympathetic clucks from an audience that has never personally witnessed the everyday violence the comprises the lives of the world's poorest. There is no liberal guilt here, no patronizing lessons, no stirring political take-home message. It's a fundamentally American story -- the individual triumphs, good people win in the end, hard work, savvy, and luck are richly rewarded. Of course, this is nowhere near the truth, not even in America these days. At the same time, though, Slumdog does not shy away from gruesome realities, uncomfortable confrontations, or chronic injustices.
Who would have thought that matching tough realism with an incredulous plot would, crazily enough, make for better, more politically sensitive representation than a carefully crafted narrative that conscientiously attempts to capture "the truth?"
There's probably a lesson or two in all this, an artistic one as well as a political one. The artistic one is probably obvious. It's probably the motivation that led Boyle to make this brilliant, insane film the way that he did: whatever you need to do to make your audience cheer like crazy for your hero, do it -- with courage and visual splendor. Shock and awe in the best possible way, no holds barred: cover your hero in shit, have a 12-year-old boy kill and rape, do a massive dance routine on a train platform. Okay, we can get that.
The political one is far subtler, and one that perhaps Indian filmmakers with a strong social conscience should examine -- that fair, politically-sensitive representation may not be about being accurate at all. That the fantastic and the unreal, the impossible narrative of the individual, may provide a much more equitable lens through which to portray inequality and social ills across cultural boundaries. It is precisely this surprise that I think Danny Boyle offers to the world of cinema on India. And it's why I say that, even though Danny Boyle obviously relied heavily on very smart, insightful Indians to pull this movie off, the mark of an outside perspective on this movie is indelible.