Wednesday, February 25, 2009

My own take on the Slumdog win (and backlash)!

Slumdog Millionaire was the best movie I saw all year until I got to The Wrestler, which was far better (and Mickey Rourke was robbed, but that's another post).

Anyway, I've read lots of criticisms of the film, and a lot of the backlash seems to me to miss some of the point. I certainly find it problematic that it's a movie written and directed by white men telling an Indian story, but more than that, I disagree with a lot of the critiques.

M. Leblanc at Bitch, Ph.D. had a good post up about it yesterday.

On the one hand, the film is so clearly a fantasy story, that I don't know that it's trying to convey a "message," about social justice or anything else. It's unrealistic. It does not attempt authenticity. It employs flashbacks and shifts in time to create a wonderland-effect which is at odds with the gritty realism of some of the images (not, mind you, the cinematography, which is very polished and cinematic). I think people make the mistake of assuming it's trying to present something "real" because movies don't usually feature or address poverty, especially third-world poverty, unless they're trying to convey something "real" and convey a "message."

I totally agree. She also references Samhita's post at Feministing.

I guess I have more questions than I have answers. And the questions I ask were certainly not the ones considered by the Academy in choosing this film. To be clear, I loved this movie and I saw it twice. The second time I brought my family, and my father a staunch Indian nationalist, hated it. He didn't like the way it portrayed India. I do not hold the same politics as my father and I felt that it actually held more truth about poverty and corruption in India than we would like to admit. But once you sift through the amazing imagery, adorable kids and soundtrack you are left with a coming of age story, only the story is not really for Indian audiences.

But the question that occurred to me when reading all of this was:

Is it colonialist of us to expect Slumdog Millionaire to be a social commentary because it's set in a slum?

I watched it and wrote a review of it in which I pretty much gushed all over it. I haven't watched it again, and I'm fully aware that I'm watching it through white American eyes.

Although I did take a certain message from the film, I don't think it was the one that people expected. I read it as a parable about how random success is. Jamal is not a “Christ-figure” as much as he is the Holy Fool, someone who screws up again and again and haplessly stumbles through the world by being good. It's still a Western character archetype placed in India, which is probably colonialist in itself. And Leblanc and Samhita point out the problems with the Latika character so I'm not going to here.

But the story is NOT a 'pulling-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps' fable. In fact, the character who does pull himself up, Salim, pulls himself up by falling into crime. Jamal, on the other hand, stumbles into things and manages to get rich. Perhaps it shows my own bias, but I read this as a comment on the nature of modern capitalist society, that those who are on top often did not get there through their own work or the fairy tale of pulling oneself up by those damned bootstraps.

Also, the story was told through Jamal's eyes and so is tinged with his own views. The riot from which Jamal, Salim and Latika flee as children? It isn't presented with context because that's how it would look to the kids running away. They weren't running for their lives thinking, “Gee, the Hindus are really taking out this geopolitical strife on us!” They just ran.

And so I come to the question that I always run smack into: does everything have to be social commentary? Does one film set in India have to portray the whole of Indian experience, because it's the rare Western film set in India, or should we instead be arguing that we should see more films set in India (insert other commonly Othered country here)?

Sylvia critiqued it as well, here, and I can see her point, as I can see many of these points. I just don't know if I agree.

This, however, does indeed bother me. Even though stories came out later that noted it wasn't as bad as that story made it sound.