Review by poonam srivastava
Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire has won the hearts of so many. It has carried away Golden Globes, Oscars, and other prizes. The movie is a supposed feel good love story. I saw a horrific series of images of torture and extreme human degradation with no real explanations of their genesis or any real transformation of the characters or the situation, interspersed with greed and violence centered on the desire to accumulate great wealth. The international applause seems to be mostly from those ignorant of the plot subject. This movie appears to me a contemporary case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Any one with a sense of story will have to suspend that in order to enjoy Slumdog. The hero, a boy named Jamal, and his brother, Salim, flee their devastated slum home along with girl, Latika, from their urban slum due to Hindu violence. The hero and the girl are in love. The three are somehow spun into a version of the three musketeers as they adventure into the jungle that is Mumbai. They are bonded by a nearly deadly Pinnochio-esque experience with a beggar mafia. The brothers lose the girl but save each other. Then when they go to find the girl again, suddenly Salim, the older (and darker) brother shoos off Jamal, the younger (lighter and more ethical one) with the same gun he had used to free her. (What?) (There seems to be an internalized racism here.) The character of Latika is stereotypical of a western idea of the poor suffering third world woman. She has no agency in this role. Latika, despite the energy the child actor brought to the screen becomes a commodity traded by men. However, her virginity is proclaimed as intact at the moment the brothers rescue her. Short lived as that rescue may be. Then when Jamal infiltrates the house of her captor to steal her away, she is concerned not with Jamal’s life but with the material means of their escape. “What will we live on?” she says. “Love.” he says. That is basically the insipid level of dialogue that is maintained through the film. Boyle and the people responsible for making this film had a wealth of strong women characters in other Indian films (Spices for example) and right in the slums they shot in. Apparently they weren’t looking. I can say that I have been in the company of the women of India that till fields and break the stones for the roads by hands and they are not Latika. The timing of the movie was painfully slow. We are subjected to an hour, or so it certainly feels, of an insipid flashback. The story starts at the point where the hero, Jamal, is taken from the television studio into police custody. We are immediately assaulted with images of electrocution and water torture akin to Guantanamo Bay. His crime, winning where others have lost, at a television game show hardly matches the level of suffering. It is unclear who called the police in. India is rife with police corruption, with payoffs, based on personal power. Dragging uninspired dialogue, "How would a chai walla know the answer to that?", accompany the torture and are woven with scenes of great shock from a violent and impoverished childhood. Boy falls into shit hole. Boy gets hit in the head with a book. Boy runs with friends from cops carrying sticks. All this to show what? The way out of the slums is a television game show? The child actors are the only bright spots in the film. They come on the screen there is a breath of fresh air. The constant expression of confusion and humility that the teen/adult Jamal carries through the entire film, the constant expression of rage that Salim carries, and the constant look of subjugation and sultry sexiness that the grown up Latika assumes is in stark contrast to the moving faces of these three child actors. The scenes with the children in Hindi with subtitle carry us through a reality that is harsh. Their resilient smiles point to the ineffable human spirit. We believe them. Then suddenly they are teenagers talking in English to tourists. Jamal eventually finds work in a call center as a lowly tea server. There he answers the manager’s questions on British trivia and thus trumps the callers who are groomed in accents and culture of the first world they serve. The manager smiles. She knows he is knowledgeable and intelligent. Why then are we to trust that it is sheer mad luck that the game show questions are simply coincidence to his life experience? He has fools luck. Hurray. Dumb slumdog, gets lucky. Wins million, gets girl. Hurray! Well, perhaps the public unfamiliar with India may forgive Slumdog for its many errors in plot and point. However, as one well versed in the subcontinent I have serious issues. The staging of the devastation of Jamal's childhood home as a result of Hindu / Muslim riots is my first sticking point. Shantytowns in Mumbai tend more often than not to be run over by corporate greed and conveniences rather than religious riots. In fact it is the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation that recently demolished the homes of the actual slum residing child actors due to the demands of construction. Of course Danny Boyle did not know this. He knew nothing of India that is why he was eager to take on the project according to an interview he gave at Telluride Film Festival fall of 2008. Also, why did the script choose to give the main character a strictly Muslim identity? The book Q and A on which the film is based strove to blur the religious element by having it's hero named Ram Mohammad Thomas. Are the makers of Slumdog trying to once again, in the spirit of the East India Tea Company, pit Muslim against Hindu? Award. Dev Patel who played the adult Jamal, says this in an interview to Screencrave: (about a) “slum called Tal Aviv, which has got a population of 2 million and still growing. Coming from London, I had this stupid preconceived notion, a stereotype of what a slum would be... The day I woke up to go on this location scout, I thought, damn its gonna be a bloody hard day, I’m gonna be depressed. And I was so glad to be proved wrong.... When they’re there, all you get is an overwhelming sense of community. They call them slums, but they are colonies. Everyone knows everyone and they’re all working together in unison, like one molecule, like on cell. I remember there was this kid walking down the slum, he had this vest on, licking an icelolly and it’s all dripping down his top and there’s a group of three burly men. And one guy saw the boy and picked him up, put him next to him, and pulled out a handkerchief, cleaned him up, and pushed him along back on his journey. And I was like wow. In London you can’t do that. Here they all look after each other. He didn’t know that kid.” My experience with the Indian poor is absolutely in synch with Dev Patel’s observations expressed above. One does not find the community, cooperative vibe in the slum portrayed by Slumdog. No the kids are like dogs. They run wild and have no nurturing or oversight. The people are cruel and fight for survival. Dog eat dog. Only the sensationalist elements, the dirt, the chaos and violence, are strung together visually with a hot sound track. Poverty porn. No wonder the many protests in India over the film. The words stupid and preconceived seemed to stick in my brain. Mr. Boyle and company had an opportunity to show the real face of Indian poverty and disenfranchisement as well as the resilience of human spirit, the specifically Indian face of poverty with it’s amazing entrepreneurial industrial cooperation that battles the very real concrete chronic systemic forces profiting from its continued existence. Instead they offered us two hours of stupid preconceived cliché. Feel good? Not me. Even the happy ending was a huge disappointment. Bollywood was reduced to Broadway. The screen filled with finger snapping blandly dressed cast-members. Two streams of people parted and floated neatly away in trains. Where were the costume changes, the dancing in the rain, the juxtaposition of the Eiffel Tower after the village scene, the mandatory peeking from behind pillar or tree, and the heaving heavy breasts that define Bollywood? Slumdog Millionaire is a glorification of mediocrity and consumer culture. As a member of the audience I suffered. As a human being I suffered even more.