Situating Slumdog Millionaire

I saw “Slumdog Millionaire” months ago, before the Oscars but after its appeal had risen to fever-pitch in the more multi-cultish corners of the US, like my very own Bay Area. I arrived early with my friend and the theater was packed with well-heeled, wide open-minded Berkeleyans, and this was well before the previews. And the next two hours were very enjoyable – the plot, if a bit saccharine, was also snappy and well-executed, the supersaturated colours were beautiful and it was not Bollywood length: all positives. By the time the credits came around and there was all that dancing at VT, I realized that that was the first and last dance number, also a major appeal. I liked it. I felt like Danny Boyle had given me a good time: it was Bollywood-ish enough not to feel completely fake, not Bollywood enough to require Excedrin before the intermission. But with enjoyment came some unease. 

Since watching the film and talking to a couple of my friends about it back in January and now, however, “Slumdog…” hs become a cultural icon, and the subject of some quite heated debate in critical circles. Some issues are obvious: what’s up with the language? Others are just idiotic: Salman Rushdie calls the premise “a patently ridiculous conceit”. Salman Rushdie?! But yet others surround very real and very meaningful issues, such as: is this a fair representation of India? Of slumlife? Is the Alger-esque story of Jamal Malik, Salim and Latika to become the leitmotif of ‘India Shining’?

These are important questions, but also questions that belong around and beyond the screen. Anyone watching “Slumdog Millionaire" to find out more about India is starting out with some ridiculous expectations, in scope and in kind. SM is a story, one told well and projected beautifully, but with as much profound truth about India’s condition (or the micro-nation that is the Indian slum) as "Sex and the City" has about New York or "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" has about Los Angeles. Hollywood audiences tune out the LA or New York City exteriors represented in the movies, just like Bollywood devotees are used to generic spaces of the Film City studio: like the village, the big house, the Switzerland-like Kashmir, the train station, etc.

The real problem with "Slumdog Millionaire" is that it is set in an unfamiliar place to Americans and Europeans, and thus Western audiences will, inevitably, look closer and try to recognize 'India' in it even when such a search is meaningless. What I think they will see is the amalgam of the new India: slums, yes, but also skyscraper and hotel construction, call-centers, seaside villas, jeeps and reality shows. Such diversity enables the rags-to-riches stories of Horatio Alger and, earlier, Charles Dickens. And nowhere is that more represented than that largely fictitious city of Mumbai.

I say fictitious because most residents, in conversation, still call that city Bombay, and the naming has meaning, as Leo Marani reminds us. And I would submit that, even though it’s not a responsibility of Mr. Boyle’s, the movie’s reception would be a great deal more palatable if the slum was actually named Dharavi, the trains were featured actually running, and that the aged, complicated, cosmopolitan and multi-communal city of Bombay was present and featured as having a history, an atmosphere, a character. Here, the appropriate comparison is to Dickens, who wrote foggy, grimy and particular London into his stories with a care and detail that situated his characters and relationships. Bombay is not quite that old but at least that complicated, and should not be collapsed into an idiom for Indian material progress.

Given that more films with Western directors are going to be made in India and given that Western audiences will continue to see India through them,  it would be great if those stories are situated in a backdrop as complicated and particular as possible, with all the issues of language, community, class, culture, geography, history, religion that make India hard to fully grasp. Let it be like catching a tidal wave in a dixie cup, and not receiving a shrink-wrapped piece of culture. 

Kawaa tries to place Slumdog Millionaire

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What an amazing movie it is.

What an amazing movie it is. But showing India and Mumbai so bad is not good. The director has tried to cash the poverty of india.

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