Multiple Reality Disorder

Repost from Tweeting @mediabard
JULY 4, 2010 2:31PM

Slumdog's Cultural Baggage

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This essay was originally posted to MRD on 28 February 2009

Last week, the India-based, UK-produced, U.S.-funded fairy-tale drama "Slumdog Millionaire" ran away with eight Oscars, including for best director and best picture. It was the predictable (and widely predicted) peak for this most talked-about movie of the year.

So it came as no surprise when the following day, over lunch, a friend of mine rhetorically opined, "Yeah, but was it really that good?"

The remark, uttered with the exacerbation from feeling like the only normal person in a room, is an extension of the backlash that has popped up to counter an otherwise beloved film. Despite widespread critical acclaim and audience approval, sources of discontent, particularly in India, England and the United States, have found reason to not follow the pack.

Slate contributor Dennis Lim attributed praise for "Slumdog" to "residual colonial guilt," while others have focused on the semantics of the word Slumdog, following protests by some of India's real-life slum-dwellers. Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava write in The New York Times:

Understanding such a place solely by the generic term “slum” ignores its complexity and dynamism. Dharavi’s [a Mumbai neighborhood depicted in the film] messy appearance is nothing but an expression of intense social and economic processes at work.

Meanwhile, reaction in India has been understandably mixed -- thrilled to have been recognized by the West, but also resentful in the way it was.

The Times of India reported a heated debate in the Indian parliament about whether to officially congratulate the filmmakers for their Oscar sweep. The Hindu praised "Slumdog" as "
the perfect blend of pathos, humour [sic] and action," while the Hindustan Times reports that the nationalist organization, RSS, "slammed Slumdog" for selling India's squalor to the West.

Indian sentiments, pro or con, make sense. It is India, with its national identity's dirty laundry aired to the world in fictional form, that has the most at stake.

Indian Nationalists, like those of the RSS, have a lot riding on the perception of their country (as do nationalists anywhere). They want to be viewed as strong and important, equal in stature to the world's other powers, including the United States. Any depiction of poverty, a symptom of weakness, is seen as undermining Indian destiny (nevermind that myriad movies about poverty in America have not diminished its own superpower standing). That the film was written, directed and produced largely outside India, with U.S. and British resources, adds a conspiratorial element to the nationalists' vitriol.

In the latter regard, there may indeed be a "residual colonial guilt" playing a role. If Colonialism 1.0 was the occupation of land, subjugation of people and robbing of resources -- all physical and tangible actions -- then Colonialism 2.0 (a.k.a. neocolonialism) accomplishes the same subjugation through less obvious means: the control of ideas and culture.

For "Slumdog" to be a tactic of neocolonialism, however, it does not have to be an intentional plot on the part of the West to define its former colonies. The mere perception, and subsequent accusation, of such is enough to make it so.

Nationalists, of course, are expected to think this way. For them, everything is a potential threat to the prestige and prospects of their nation.

A more legitimate case to be made against "Slumdog," then, isn't really against the film itself, but against a foreign culture that has embraced it as Indian where other, more bona fide Indian films have failed to break through.

Many Indian audiences are asking, and rightly so, why it took a Western movie to show a Western audience "real" India -- a reaction similar to the casting of Ben Kingsley, an actor with superficial ties to India, as Gandhi in Richard Attenborough's 1982 depiction, and not an Indian-bred actor.
There have been films about Mumbai slums before — most notably Mira Nair's "Salaam Bombay", (1988), which enjoyed critical success on the festival and art-house circuit. But many believe the reason that "Slumdog" has been raking in awards is simply that Western audiences haven't seen many films like it before.
That may be the simplest, and perhaps most honest, explanation yet as to why "Slumdog Millionaire" might not appeal to Indian audiences: It's as familiar a story to them as "Revolutionary Road" might be to GI Bill suburbanites in the United States. The Time article quoted above continues:
A lot of Indians are not keen to watch it for the same reason they wouldn't want to go to Varanasi or Pushkar for a holiday — it's too much reality for what should be entertainment. "We see all this every day," says Shikha Goyal, a Mumbai-based public relations executive who left halfway through the film.
All of that helps explain Indian sentiments towards "Slumdog", but does nothing to address those of non-Indians. So I return to my friend's off-the-cuff remark, was it really that good?

The simple answer is yes, it was. "Slumdog Millionaire" is, at its core, a sweet and simple tale about the power of love, which in these confusing and cynical times is something the public craves more than ever. It is, as some have suggested and as the filmmakers have marketed it as, a feel-good movie, but it is a feel-good movie of the most depressing and troubling kind, requiring a certain level of suspension of belief. But that's part of its charm, and it's why we go to the movies: to overcome, if only vicariously and for a fleeting two hours in a darkened theater, odds that are often too great to overcome in real life.

Any success will have its detractors, and human beings appear naturally inclined to build up an underdog if only to tear it down. In this regard, "Slumdog" the real-life production has evolved in parallel with "Slumdog" the fictional story: a nobody, cheered on by the masses for its unlikely potential until the success granted to it by the majority threatens its zone of control, by which time it is too late to stop. The film's detractors become Prem Kumar, the Millionaire host who tries, unsuccessfully, to stonewall Jamal Malik's inevitable victory.

Which would make The Times of London's Alice Miles, who blasted "Slumdog" as "poverty porn," the police inspector who tortures Malik in the movie's opening scenes.

Except Miles has it wrong, misdirecting her fury at the film when it should be at her fellow critics and ratings boards. It's not director Danny Boyle's fault, after all, that the British Board of Film Classification described "Slumdog" as a comedy.

If we are to consider "Slumdog Millionaire" an exploitation of India's child poverty, so too should we consider "Schindler's List" an exploitation of the Holocaust. "Slumdog" wasn't making light of India's ills, but showing -- albeit in a fantastic way -- that degrading circumstances do not necessarily determine one's destiny.

Perhaps Western-based criticism stems in part from a cultural discomfort with films that bring non-traditional perspectives from the periphery to the spotlight. There is precedence for this, most recently with the 2005 film "Crash," which looked at race relations in America.

Like "Slumdog," "Crash" was widely praised for its powerful performances and stinging verdict on racial injustice, but on its way to and after winning three Oscars, including for best picture, critics and moviegoers alike disparaged it for being too in-your-face and heavy on the melodrama.

I'll agree that its overlapping story arcs were indeed over-the-top -- it's a movie with a point to make, after all -- but no more than "American Beauty"'s commentary on white, upper-middle class suburbia. Yet curiously, "American Beauty" never faced the same criticism of being "too much."

The level and kind of reflection societies permit their movies to be extend to other corners of society, as well. The American public (or, at least, the largely white mainstream media that often stands in as the general public) was appalled to learn last year that Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a black man and Barack Obama's former pastor, had blamed our own actions as a cause of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The comment, many times taken out of context and framed as an assault on white America, became front page news, with some suggesting it would derail Obama's candidacy for president. This despite that a slew of commentators had been saying the same thing, and worse, for years without much controversy.

The difference? These commentators worked from within the mainstream, and thus were deemed more acceptable and less threatening.

Ultimately, the collective response to how a work of art portrays a given culture is based not only on how it is portrayed, but also on who is doing the portraying and for what purposes. Two filmmakers (or, in the case of the real-life politics example above, pundits) could make the same cultural claim, but if one is deemed part of the system while the other is seen as an outsider, the outsider will be perceived as attacking status quo, prompting a defensive reflex.

With this, negative criticism of "Slumdog" might not be so much a statement about "Slumdog" as it is about ourselves, and our comfort in flipping that which we take for granted as "the way things are."

I don't want to make reaction to "Slumdog" solely a matter of race or ethnic standing (always the lowest-hanging fruit to pluck), nor do I want to suggest that the film's critics are racist. However, "Slumdog" can attribute part of its success to the West's centuries' old fascination with the mysterious, Eastern "other " -- those preconceived misunderstandings and prejudices (good, bad, simplistic or otherwise) that formed the basis of Edward Said's theory of Orientalism. It's a destructive imbalance, but one that "Slumdog" pulls off in rather benign fashion, largely because its conception of India as impoverished and chaotic is not the only one we have through which to understand India.

Given its geography, India is lucky to not suffer from an across-the-board perception of backwardness, instability and primitiveness. India intrigues the West not only because of its differentness, but also because of what it has accomplished during 60 years of independence. We know it as a successful democracy and a rising power with an eager, educated and entrepreneurial middle class. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has single-handedly boosted positive perceptions of India by routinely singing its praises.

It would be neither fair nor accurate, however, to understand India only as the pending victor on the leveled playing field of globalization, just as it would be neither fair nor accurate to understand India's neighbor, Pakistan, only as a corrupt nuclear state with Islamic terrorists threatening its stability.

"Slumdog Millionaire" reminds us that India, despite its global economic potential, continues to struggle with extreme poverty, poor education, caste and cultural injustice, inadequate family and childcare, environmental shortcomings and holes in its healthcare system. That's not a negative perception of India, but an honest one, and one that, at least for this Westerner, only further encourages deeper exploration of a rich and richly nuanced country and culture.

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