Sunday, February 22, 2009

Slumdog

Last night I saw Slumdog Millionaire. Despite the fact that it's about to win the Best Picture Oscar, it's only playing on a couple of screens in the Fresno/Clovis area. We had to drive past several cineplexes to get to it. Ah, Fresno... but I digress.

I thought it was really quite good, and I'm sure it's walking away with that gold statue-thing tonight. I respect the film on several different levels. For one, it's structurally very clever. It's composed in a way that uses near and distant backstory to move the narrative forward, while at the time managing to leave all the suspense in place at the movie's conclusion. The fundamental thematic revelation that explains why this young man was able to answer the Millionaire questions is brilliant (even if it reminds some of Forrest Gump). Boyle depicts so much crushing poverty and child abuse in a film that still manages to have a logical progression to its uplifting ending. Not easy, and absolutely better than most Hollywood attempts at the same.

And it's got subtle moments as well, things that pass by without being highlighted but that certainly were intentional. Take, for example, the fact that it begins with a torture sequence. Not pleasant, and yet it's interesting that the person being tortured doesn't open up until the torturers... well, sit him down and start talking to him like he's a person. I respect Boyle for having elements like that that can be seen as overtly political statements that he manages to work seamlessly into the logic of the narrative.

Now, I can't deny that this film's success comes from the fact that Boyle knows how to meaningfully present this material for a Western audience. Does he touch on some familiar Indian stereotypes and landmarks? Sure. But he also takes us - and middle class Indians too - into places we/they have not been. I know the reaction in India has not been as euphoric as here, which prompted me to check out some Indian-oriented blogs. Here's The Imagined Universe's take on it. Here's Prerna on Family Secrets, Objections and Excuses. Perhaps most interesting, though - and more to the point than middle class ruminations - is this piece on how "destitute" Indian children responded to viewing the movie. Take a look. It was about them, after all...


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13 Comments:

Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Can I be the first to comment on my own post? Sure, why not?

Slumdog just won best picture. I'm not sure what you thought about it, but I loved them having the entire cast (or as many as possible) go up on the stage.

We need more of this sort of thing, folks. More of it.

-David.

12:28 AM  
Blogger Alis said...

I wasn't watching the Oscars, but I would have been delighted to see the entire cast go up. (I haven't seen any of the other nominated films, only Slumdog, and that only a few days ago.)

I thought Slumdog was a well made film for exactly the reasons you cite (why, we must both be writers!).

I had some discomfort at the "poverty porn" aspects of it--I've seen other Indian films set in the slums or in the criminal underworld, and they seemed to have a different relationship to the poverty and underworld (it didn't seem as voyueristic?), but nothing I could specifically point to.

Otoh, maybe it's because so much of the film focuses on children that it might have seemed more exploitative. And my spouse did not agree with me on this point, anyway. He had not problem with any of it.

So, thanks for the links to some Indian response to the film. That was useful to read.

2:43 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Interesting. I can understand what you mean by "poverty porn", but I can't say I felt that at play while watching. The poverty was so horrific - and the lives of the children living in it so harrowing - that I found no voyeuristic... um, pleasure or fascination in it.

But I do know what you mean. I certainly recall visiting my dad's native Trinidad or backpacking in Central America, coming home with tales of poverty that, yes, I took some form of pride in saying I'd seen first hand... I didn't feel that during this film, though.

3:06 PM  
Blogger Kate Elliott said...

Heh, re: the "pride" in seeing poverty first hand. I fear I may, um, felt that also once or twice in my time.

I've been thinking about what bothered me with Slumdog (which I otherwise really enjoyed). It wasn't the depiction of poverty per se (I thought he did a good job of capturing elements of a life that far far far too many people in this world lead on a day to day basis).

I think it may have been that there was almost a greatest hits feel to it. So forex and offhand, Chandni Bar is about the dancing girls bars and therefore prostitution. Satya is about a naive village lad getting caught up in the criminal underworld in the big city.

Whereas with Slumdog we went right down through the harrowing list to the point where maybe I began to feel that the director and writer were trying to hit all the possible horrific things and that maybe it was too much.

However, I hasten to add that my spouse agrees with your view.

3:20 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Your spouse sounds terribly reasonable. ;)

Actually, you make a good point. I didn't have that reaction myself, but it sounds like you also have some films to reference as comparisons that I don't.

I might say this from Danny Boyle's side... Perhaps the "greatest hits" feel had to do with the likely fact that he only had one shot at this unlikely topic, and would likely only make one movie about India. I can imagine in that case I would want to put as much on film as possible, which might mean coming away with a survey of a variety of manifestation of Indian poverty, as opposed to a clear focus on a smaller sliver.

1:22 PM  
Blogger Kate Elliott said...

I haven't seen Trainspotting or 28 Days After (or whatever it's called), although I understand they are both by Boyle -- but certainly he tends to focus on the grim and gritty, so it's not like that element is a departure for him as a filmmaker.

I don't know about my spouse being reasonable. HE sure seems to think he is!

3:42 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

I hear you. I was referring specifically to the Indian setting really.

Funning thing about Trainspotting. I saw that movie just before I moved to Scotland. At the time it was getting a lot of flack for "glamorizing" heroin addiction. I'm not sure that the folks saying that actually saw the movie...

Or, maybe I'm wrong. Even after it I was still pretty keen to get across and walk the night streets of Edinburgh. Fateful decision, that...

11:55 PM  
Anonymous Stephe said...

That's quite a spectrum of opinion in those links you provided, David. And it's not surprising that the children saw the utter beauty in their life portrayed for the world, the good, the bad, and painful parts, and embraced it, rather than the adults who were uncomfortable.

Something profound happens to us when we grow up: In losing our innocence, we become almost obsessed with the appearance of our laundry instead of whether or not it is actually clean. No one wants to look bad in front of others, but shouldn't we be more concerned about the truth of something rather than it being on the table?

I think the movie is wonderful. Parts of it hurt my heart. I also have enough common sense to know that other sections of India are very different, and that there are reasons and circumstances concerning the many faces of India that I could never understand just by seeing one movie. Or two.

Just some thoughts.

10:27 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Good thoughts. Thanks for them.

1:37 PM  
Blogger uman said...

Stephe: excellent point regarding the laundry. I was born in India, but grew up here. I have traveled through India dozens of times. Slumdog is faithful to a small part of the complex Indian reality.

But not all. And I think that's the problem that many Indian commentators have. What worries many Indians is that they feel they will be judged by this film, given that most Americans know so little about India.
While I think most Americans understand that Slumdog is a movie, my wife's co-worker told her that after seeing Slumdog, she had no wish to go to India. I wonder what she thinks of Boston after seeing the Departed. Anyway, her loss. My American friends who've been to India tell me that the first time is the hard part, a shock to the senses. If you go back again, then you're taken by the place.

Indians don't experience that shock. From an early age, a middle-class Indian has to learn the art of selective sight. You really don't see the ragpickers, the poverty that lurks at the edges. As wealth trickles down, it's even harder to see today than 20 years ago. But it's out there. And unlike America, where a suburban American can easily pretend that Camden, NJ doesn't exist, in India, the different social milieu are intertwined deeply. You could talk to your housecleaner, or the chai wallah, or the auto driver for the details. Some do, many don't. Slumdog doesn't capture the Indians who do care about the other 80%: the teacher who volunteers with the NGO to teach in the slums, the doctors who provide free medical care, etc. We don't see that India in Slumdog. In fact, most of the Indians in Slumdog are very cruel to each other. What I see in India is less active cruelty, but more indifference. Oftentimes, mind-numbing, bureaucratic indifference.

Films don't help. India is hurtling doubletime into the 21st century (what England and America experienced in leisure-like realtime). So Bollywood caters to the aspirations of the people, not their conscience or even their curiosity. Slumdog gets it right: India won't care for a slumdog, but it will for a slumdog millionaire.

10:17 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Uman,

Thanks for adding your perspective. It all makes sense and adds to my understanding of this issue. Much appreciated.

I don't know if I'd say "films don't help", though. We're talking because of this film. I've had a lot to think on and chew over because of this film. I understand a few more things because of this film. Okay, that is small next to the on the ground realities faced by millions. No, a film is no easy fix there.

But in a world as large as ours the effects of any one person's efforts are almost always minuscule. I bet that many people who've seen this film - whether they liked it or not, whether they are Indian or not - have spent some of their time and energy responding to it, thinking about it. That, to me, is a help, even if it's tiny in comparison to the problem.

And who can say that a film watcher now won't be an active influence in the world ten or twenty or thirty years from now?

-David.

12:08 PM  
Blogger uman said...

I misspoke, David. I should have said Bollywood films don't help. India once had a valid alternative cinema, one that explored social issues. It's largely disappeared, or perhaps used Calvin's transmogrifier and resurfaced in regional cinema, and television. The bulk of Bollywood films are song and dance numbers.

9:03 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Uman,

Ah, okay... That makes it much clearer.

12:11 PM  

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