Sunday, February 8, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire 101

I have been watching this story play out and making the decision on when to comment. I think we have, finally, hit the right moment--at least for me.

I saw the movie with friends over the Superbowl weekend and in various ways, I have been collecting thoughts since then.

It is, of course, an American movie. Made by a British Director and based on a story, originally, penned by an Indian author but still an American tale, owing far more to Hollywood than Bollywood. And that has sparked a wave of Indian protests. The Wikipedia entry is a good place to start if you aren't familiar with the details of the film. Someone has been working hard to collect the big picture on that big picture.

Matthew Schneeberger points the way to our first Teachable Moment in his reaction to the Indian criticism of the film: "Say an Indian director travelled to New Orleans for a few months to film a movie about Jamal Martin, an impoverished African American who lost his home in Hurricane Katrina, who once had a promising basketball career, but who -- following a drive-by shooting -- now walks with a permanent limp, whose father is in jail for selling drugs, whose mother is addicted to crack cocaine, whose younger sister was killed by gang-violence, whose brother was arrested by corrupt cops, whose first born child has sickle cell anaemia, and so on. The movie would be widely panned and laughed out of theatres." I am not sure I agree with that, given the appearance of the movie Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire.. But, his point is well-taken.

The extended and spot-on critique by Indian film makers and critics in the section entitled Reactions from India and Indian Diasporathat follows gives a far more realistic discussion of the film than is occurring in the American press. We want to love this film despite its shortcomings. Must be doing something important for us is all about us, after all. So, as usual, I began thinking about what it does for us--been mulling it all week.

As the Superbowl extravaganza rolled on before me the film was fresh in my mind and I was amused to see the theme of the movie roughly reiterated in the second highest rated fan favorite commercial according to the USA Today poll: ah, the power of mystic love, pure beauty and unexplored instant attraction and the special thread of human connection, as revealed by horses. Yes, our smitten Clydesdale in pursuit of Daisy the circus horse, what obstacles is he willing to overcome to get to her?

Does it sound to you like the clowns are speaking with a Hindi accent?

This morning's New York Times' columnist Frank Rich gives us our next Teachable Moment. Seems the real theme of the movie is the triumph of integrity and a call to populist arms. As Rich argues: This is why “Slumdog Millionaire,” which pits a hard-working young man in Mumbai against a corrupt nexus of money and privilege, has become America’s movie of the year. As Robert Reich, the former Clinton labor secretary, wrote after Daschle’s fall, Americans “resent people who appear to be living high off a system dominated by insiders with the right connections.”

Okay. Interesting. That really is all about us. Can't we find something that has something to do with India? At all? Just a little?

From the Wikipedia article, we get this critique of the film, 'Shyamal Sengupta, a professor of film studies at the Whistling Woods International Institute for Films, Media, Animationa and Media Arts in Mumbai, criticized the film for its stereotypical portrayals of Indians by calling it a "white man's imagined India. It's not quite snake charmers, but it's close. It's a poverty tour."'

The criticism is apt. But I find myself grateful that our white man's imagined tour has progressed a bit. India, at least, has passed the victimization model of the poverty tour. The people in that teeming squalor are evincing the message of self-determination and demand our respect. Check out the the theme pursued by Foreign Policy magazine in their photo essay on "India's Real-World Slumdogs"

Seems we are now faced with visions of slums which are "actually vibrant business centers filled with scrappy entrepreneurs".

Now, if only in the American hierarchy of views of "the Other", we could get past "the Other" of starving, passive Africans. Maybe then, we could stop trying to "save" them and see them as the "scrappy entrepreneurs" that mirror our own admired personality characteristics. Somali, "scrappy entrepreneurs", anyone?

Edited: I couldn't resist trying to play with the blog post format a bit and lead with the picture of our hero as a young boy looking toward the sun from his foul toilet and ending with him from on high looking out over the world which he now commands. From scrappy to happy, huh?


larry c wilson said...

I enjoyed the movie. As for it having any influence on my image of India--or anything else...nothing. Like all movies it is either entertaining or it is not. Samuel Goldwyn had it right: If you want to send a message, send a telegram.

Pamthropologist said...

"You fail to overlook the crucial point."

Anonymous said...

Hi larry and pamthropologist. I too enjoyed the film. Pure and simple entertainment. I find that with popular entertainment what works for me is to switch off the more critical regions of my tired brain. I also try not to bring along to the cinema my more intellectual friends and relatives who read too much into these industrial works and spoil the fun.

Pamthropologist said...

Jeesh, everyone's a critic. I enjoyed the film, too. But, I also enjoyed thinking about the film, analyzing the film, and blogging about the film. Because, even though sometimes a cigar is just a cigar; sometimes it is, also, a symbol for a penis.

*grumble grumble* nothing like working on a post that no one sees any value in.

Ian said...

I just wrote an anthropological report on the film for my college anthro class.

My real point here is this: even though some, or even most viewers of this film leave the experience with nothing in mind but a sense of entertained satisfaction, I believe that it's inevitable that your viewpoint has changed subconsciously.

When you walk the streets of a city and see the homeless or impoverished children playing in the streets... when you see a nat geo photo of Iraqi, Chinese, or Capetown slums... you might feel a little more humanity - Jamal Malik made us realize (if only for the 2 hours you were watching) that the most humble, and sometimes the most genius people, are experiencing the human condition, just like you... but completely differently.

Pamthropologist said...

Glad to see you are on my side that it has some meaning and some effect. And thanks for sharing.