Monday, January 26, 2009

Re-Evaluating "Slumdog Millionaire": Western Constructs of Hope




Slumdog's overwhelming success at the box office this weekend (finishing 5th after a mild expansion is pretty impressive for a film with little advertising), its win at the Golden Globes, the Producers Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, its 10 Oscar nominations all beg the question...what are people responding to?  Ostensibly, we can attribute its grand reception in the States to its transcription of Dickensian ideals - the "rags to riches" fable, the "true love conquers all" idea - to our current economic situation, to our "hope" that we feel at the inauguration of our new president (see also my thoughts on the inauguration from last week).  But why is Slumdog the film that's communicating this to us?  Why not "Milk," which is much moreso about hope, about political communication, about the success of the human spirit against insurmountable odds?  Well, "Milk" is about gay people.  I hate to say it like that, but Prop 8 and any number of homosexual legislation from the past two years is evidence in and of itself that we are very much a part of a homophobic society.  We had problems accepting a film that challenged our expression of masculine virility in the Western just three years ago, why would we all of a sudden open ourselves up to a film that's explicitly gay all over?

"Slumdog" lets us transfer these feelings into India, a society we know NOTHING about as Westerners (by and large).  There is an underlying motif throughout "Slumdog" that really troubles me when I hear people talk about it.  Yes, it's a great movie, but the singular elevation of this movie by the West strikes me as extremely bizarre.  It's a Western production - written and directed by British filmmakers.  I would argue that everything in "Slumdog Millionaire" pivots on a very interesting ideological exchange that actually says the WESTERN IDEALS are what is most powerful, what gives Jamal the ability to succeed. 

Let's just look for a second at the game show in and of itself.  "Millionaire" is a Western show, developed in the United States and exported to India.  That we chose *this* show instead of something - anything - necessarily MEANS something.  Slumdog has been described as the first successful globalized film, but what does globalization mean?  Note that in the original novel by Vikas Swarup the quiz show is called "Who Will Win a Billion?"  We're talking about RUPEES, not DOLLARS, so WHY is the quiz show called "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" in the film?  For Western convenience, obviously.  The quiz show allows Jamal the ability to reconnect with Latika, it is the intermediary thread between them, but it is a predominantly Western thread.  Basically what I'm trying to point out here is that Jamal and Latika's love succeeds because of the Western intrusion into India and other quote-unquote third world countries.

Look at the questions Jamal is asked: he knows Ben Franklin is on American money but doesn't know Gandhi is on Indian money, he knows (or does he?) about Alexandre Dumas but only knows about Indian literature because he was tortured into knowing it.  He doesn't even know the slogan on the Indian flag.  Yes, the illiterate slumdog with no education finding a way to win everything is a great, rousing tale for our times, but there is something very disturbing in the subtext of this film: elements of Western society constantly *save* Jamal, elements of Indian society defeat him.  The American tourists at the Taj Mahal may be stupid stereotypes, but they still save him from the cops.  His brother may realize the potent future India may have, but he is reduced to a caricature of a gangster who finds personal redemption.  Slum life is BAD, as we're painfully (and necessarily) told, but the counter-point to the "evil" life of the film's first act bleeds with the constructed ideologies of the West.

Peer closer into Jamal's job at a telemarketing company.  This exported Western job reconnects him with his brother.  The film makes a point that the job is a Western one, that the Indians working there are made out to be Western, and yet the "Western phone company" provides a crucial intermediation to reunite Jamal and his brother.  Latika's only source of "escape," (her words) is the television and specifically a Western game show.  These Western ideologies again provide a sense of "hope" to the characters and its presence allows them to be reunited.

This is a very powerful and pervasive undercurrent that BEGS to be understood.  We can't merely dismiss "Slumdog Millionaire" as a "feel good movie to reflect our current emotions."  We can't.  Not if we're poised to give it the Academy Award for Best Picture.  Yes, the film renounces money in favor of love, yes it inevitably celebrates the universality of love instead of the culture it's locked into, but what can we make of this?  Maybe the idea that "Indian culture is backwards, Western culture is progressive" is simplifying the film *too* much, but it's a starting point we MUST consider.  British have a very complicated relationship with India that is less than 100 years away from horrible colonialism.  If they can come together to celebrate the country's tradition, that's a very powerful step.

I'm tired of hearing about how "charming" the Slumdog crew is.  We get it, they're astounded by how well their film has been received.  It's become the "little movie that will."  But is the movie a step away from colonialism?  To me, it seems like it's celebrating a CULTURAL colonialism, whereby Western constructs have manifested themselves within the traditional cultural heritage of India.  The complex relationship between these two presences is not resolved in the film, but it does make us wonder what the filmmakers are trying to say about mediation.  We need to provide an intense critical examination of this film in the next month.  I won't deny "Slumdog Millionaire" is aesthetically perfect - it gets dangerously close.  I won't deny it's captured the hearts of almost everyone who's gone to see it.  What the rest of the critical establishment needs to do is figure out why.  Don't dismiss the film as "feel good," look at its underlying ideological construct and realize there is something complex going on there.  I can't provide any deeper answer than what I've given for now.  I guess "Slumdog Millionaire" makes us feel good because it posits in some strange way that WE - the Western world - are responsible for Jamal's success. 

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