Thoughts on Slumdog Millionaire

Thankfully, it seems I’m not alone in my disapproval of Slumdog Millionaire, America’s flavor of the year for international cinema.

My friend Neil in Rochester posted the following on his blog earlier today:

“OK … so here is my point, waking up after the Golden Globes gave SM Best Pictue – Drama. It was a picture that could have made a real statement, but it missed the mark. The word “dalit” was mentioned once in the screams of the police chasing the kids in the first slum sequences. The situation in India is so incredibly sad that I found the redemption of one slumdog by winning the lottery demeaning. There was not one word of political comment in the acceptance for the Golden Globe speech of the idea that this slum is beyond anything that we in the US could even imagine. This really took the shine off an otherwise exceptional movie to me… and it took me days to figure out why I wasn’t on board the SD Bandwagon.”

My delight upon reading somewhat similar sentiment prompted the following response:

“I wouldn’t have even labeled Slumdog an “exceptional movie.” Artistically, I thought it was soulless and empty. It had none of the exuberance or fun I find in Bollywood, and it felt like a filmmaker exercise on Boyle’s part. Also, was it just me, or did they give a bunch of chimps some crack and then throw them in the editing room? After seeing Trainspotting, I expected the like from Boyle, but not to this extent. The camera placement and editing showed zero imagination. (And tying in to your political comments, the aestheticized poverty really irked me; destitution never looked so slick and cool!)

In terms of style, Bollywood never pretends to be anything other than escapism; yet Slumdog mish-moshes Bollywood’s levity and deliberate cheesiness with a kind of faux-neorealism, and it’s just a horrific mess. Someone I talked to tried to call it a “survey” of Indian cinema starting with Satyajit Ray‘s Apu trilogy from the 1950s, and while the intellectual argument made sense (and while Boyle may have casually nodded to Ray here and there), labelling Slumdog as a survey seems cursory and tenuous at best. Ray’s films are meditative and deliberately paced. They also display a highly artful and judicious use of editing and camerawork. Slumdog is the diametric opposite.

My other annoyance is that Slumdog is to Indian cinema what Crouching Tiger was to “wire-fu” and Chinese cinema. Both resulted in a nice faddy packaging for American audiences, who took both WAY too seriously. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve talked to who blast me for hating Slumdog and think that it is has great literary value in terms of its commentary on the human spirit. Yet as you pointed out, redemption (maybe even salvation!) comes in the form of vacuous consumerism (i.e. the millionaire game show).

If you interpret the film with a sense of humor (as a professor of mine did), that part is ironic and pretty damn funny, a sly jab at the seemingly ubiquituous attitude that monetary gain is indeed synonymous with redemption. That still doesn’t change the fact that I think it’s a disaster cinematically, but at least a more post-modern, ironic interpretation gets a little bit closer to the truth. But most people aren’t looking at the film that way. They find it genuinely lyrical and uplifting, and I don’t get how people are taking it that seriously. The fact that the Globes put it in the “Drama” category is laughable enough, but to give it a “Best” is just plain sad. (Not that I expected anything less, of course.)

Perhaps I wouldn’t have hated this movie so much had I caught it before the fad hit big. That happened to me last year with Juno. I saw it before every white person in the country started drooling over it, and I thought it was mildly entertaining if ultimately silly and forgettable. As enthusiasm for the film snowballed, I started to get more and more annoyed, especially since people were willing to indulge the overly conscious, hit-or-miss “cleverness” of the dialogue and the cuteness of its protagonist while completely disregarding some serious implausibilities in the script.

I think where you and I share sentiment is in our disgust with the way Slumdog is catching on as the foreign film darling of the year among American audiences, who take the film at face value, buy the soundtrack of catchy songs, and remain completely unaware of what struggle in India is really like (and how grossly this film sidesteps addressing that struggle). And again, if the film registered as true Bollywood (without the neorealist trappings), that wouldn’t even be an issue, and I’d more easily take the film as pure fantasy.”

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4 comments so far

  1. Andrew on

    All award shows are stupid! So who cares who wins…that’s what I say! We all know WALL-E was the best movie ever anyways!

  2. abhi on

    Why so serious?
    “As enthusiasm for the film snowballed, I started to get more and more annoyed”.
    and to reproduce a comment I read somewhere: ” and god knows you cant like a something which everybody starts to like.”

  3. abhi on

    ” and god knows you cant like something which everybody starts to like.”
    sorry for the extra article in the earlier comment

  4. Noah on

    So… I don’t have to see Slumdog Millionaire?


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