A film review in sepia vision [Slumdog Millionaire]

As an immigrant from the Subcontinent (I was born in Sri Lanka but am now an Australian citizen), I think a little part of me has always wished I was Indian rather than Sri Lankan.  The former always seemed so much more glamorous and full of culture.  Eight of my Top-10 books are Indian (or India-centric) and Bollywood movies have always captured my heart.

Then when Bend It Like Beckham, Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake brought The Subcontinent and the migrant experience into the mainstream, I was more than excited.

While lots of the little girls I grew up with could (if they wanted) dream of being a movie star, I never grew up with pretty, brown girls to idolise or could put posters of cute, chocolate boys on Dolly posters up in my room (I had Mulder and Scully; my white boyfriend is probably grateful of this).

But, since those all the aforementioned developments in Hollywood, I know that my children can (if they want to) dream of playing doctors on ER or House, and that’s very comforting.

And now, with Slumdog Millionaire getting Best Picture at the Golden Globes and being up for a bunch of Academy Awards in a couple of weeks, my little brown babies might even be able to dream about getting all dressed up and going to the Oscars(™)!! YAY!!

Because if Obama’s election win means just one thing, it’s that stereotype breakers don’t just break stereotypes — they smash them for all who will come hereafter!  Or maybe not.

Anyway. I very much hope that film wins lots of Oscars, too.  I saw it just after Christmas and I LOVED IT.  It is exciting, poignant, funny, and has a love story in it even though some scenes will break your heart and make your stomach turn — can I call it a tragic romantic action-thriller comedy?

Aside from it being a great movie, I was really impressed by the way it brought the dark side of India (the child slave/sex/beggar trade, poverty and development, race and religious violence, gender relations, corruption and human rights, etc) out into the bright lights of Hollywood.

But reading some of the post-Globes write ups, I could not agree more with this post from Cinemablend.com:

It’s one of the year’s best reviewed films and the reviewers who have praised it justify their love of the film by calling it “upbeat and colorful“, “inspiring“, “a feel good” movie, a “delightful spectacle“, “a rousing celebration of life, love, and hope“, a “fairytale“, and my favorite “joyous“. That’s just a tiny sampling of the intense hyperbole being thrown at the film. You’d think this was Hoosiers with saris. But I’d like to throw another word into the mix. Here it is: Exploitation. …

The movie being described by these critics is not the film that I saw several weeks ago in a darkened movie theater. Instead what I saw was a cynical collection of third-world clichés sold with pretty colors and an uplifting soundtrack.

Almost the exact same adjectives can be found in the Daily Telegraph‘s review.

It seems to me that, just as the mainstream culture-munchers simply Do. Not. Get. the ironic package that is M.I.A., the daughter-of-a-terrorist rapper who was recently listed on Esquire magazine’s “most influential” list, the serious issues at the core of Slumdog have been completely overlooked by the goras seeing this movie through rose-coloured glasses.

Yes, there are bright colours and upbeat music (by the by, I picked up on at least 2 M.I.A. tracks), but, you guys, this movie is dark.  This movie presents a horrible underbelly of India (I cannot say how accurate it really is; that is just the representation I saw).  This movie is not a Disney animation (circa 1930-1990?), as the reviews might suggest.

Regardless of whether the book, or its source, Vikas Swarup’s Q & A, was supposed to be a lighthearted-romp through Mumbai’s slums, I wonder whether any such project is possible without looking at the world from which the text emerged.

And while aspects of the film may be “third-world clichés”, I would be inclined to believe most of it is fair in the sense it’s a fictional, dramatized depiction of what really happens in the so-called “developing-world”.  I can’t claim to be an expert, but I’ve seen some horrible stuff during my trips back to “the motherland”.  You don’t just make this stuff up.

And from those who do live in India, the response is the same: less-than-impressed. While the film is yet to be released there, Mondy Thapar of the Hindustan Times has one question before India’s elite become angered over the depiction of “stereotypes” in the film:

Is someone making a mountain out of a molehill about poverty in this country? … The question is a fair one, except for the fact that slums and poor people for a fictional depiction aren’t concocted out of thin air.

Thapar’s other question is whether Slumdog is just another example of “the West’s voyeuristic obsession with joy amid poverty, vitality among the super-poor”?

If all this critical and commerical success opens “The West’s” mind to the realities of Slumdog‘s world and propels a call to action, that would be one thing.  But from the looks of it, movie-goers and reviewers are happy to leave sorting out that mess to some kind fairy godmother and her magic wand.