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Even before it won the Golden Globe tonight, Slumdog Millionaire was the odds on favorite to win Oscar’s Best Picture. 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.
If you haven’t see Slumdog Millionaire yet and don’t want me to hit you with spoilers, then read no further. If you’re still reading then know that I’m not here to paint Slumdog Millionaire as a poorly constructed. It’s directed by Danny Boyle a guy who knows what he’s doing behind a camera. It’s hard to imagine even the worst script failing under his direction. This is a well put together endeavor. No my problem here isn’t with the nuts and bolts of Slumdog Millionaire, but the message contained within it. Wait! Hold on to your pitch forks and torches, you’re going to want them later.
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. Slumdog Millionaire is the story of a little boy living in a society which happily allows his mother to be murdered by a roving mob for being Muslim, and then abandons him to live in the streets alone, scrabbling in the mud. It’s the story of a boy sold into slavery by his countrymen, a boy who once he escapes slavery can only survive by repay the kindness of tourists with theft. It’s the story of a boy whose brother treats him like garbage, betrays him and threatens to kill him so he can rape the beautiful woman his sibling loves. It’s the story of a boy who grows up to be beaten and hideously tortured by the police for doing well on a game show which tries to cheat him. It’s the story without a single moment of genuine virtue or morality demonstrated by anyone around the movie’s protagonist. It’s a story full of crime, murder, and child abuse. The only time our hero Jamal is ever really happy in, he’s robbing people. Even the film’s so called happy ending is paper thin. Having watched him live a life in which each tiny success is brutally punished by a culture of bigotry, corruption, and abuse there’s every reason to believe that after our Jamal walks off camera he’ll immediately be stabbed and left for dead in a Mumbai alley.
Yet Donald Monroe of the Fresno Bee says this “Indian tale is delightful.” What? This is a movie which portrays Indian culture as bankrupt and evil. As shown in Slumdog Millionaire the Indian way of life is one of poverty and callous disregard for basic human rights. I have no idea if that’s the real India, but that’s the one portrayed in this movie. This is the story of a boy surviving in a civilization of vicious murderers and hate-mongers. This is the story of a boy scrabbling about in the dirt heaped upon him by a national heritage of brutality, learning to lie and steal as his birthright, desperate to survive in an entire nation of evil people. Yet Duncan Riley of The Inquisitor insists, “it taps in to Indian culture in a way not really seen in movies shown in the West.” If the way he’s talking about is one of savagery, then he’s correct. Somehow I don’t think that’s what he meant.
Maybe Donald Monroe and Duncan Riley are right. Maybe this is the real India. I won’t pretend to know, though I suspect most Indians would take issue with their country being portrayed as a heartless nation of beggars and child killers. Actually that’s not fair. There are some people in the film who show the movie’s protagonist Jamal some kindness. They’re tourists, white tourists who treat him politely, kindly, and even save him from a beating. In return Jamal robs them and the film plays happy music.
The real question for me here is what is it that everyone finds so “uplifting” about this movie? Why would anyone describe such a film as joyous? What are we celebrating here? If this were an American movie about an American child going through precisely the same miserable life of abuse on the streets of New York, I have a hard time believing it would be described as anything other than disturbing and frightening. If this story were set in South Central LA, it would be decried as racist. This is the story of a good boy forced to become a thief by a morally bankrupt, despicable society. What a horrible world he lives in. There’s nothing joyous or celebratory here, unless we’re celebrating the superiority of our own culture over the vile Indian one portrayed in the film. Or is it simply that we expect less of these people, because they’re from somewhere else? Are we supposed to work on a sliding scale? Maybe that’s why it’s a triumph of humanity. Simply managing not to get killed is an accomplishment of its own in this India, and we should find that uplifting. I’m not sure that’s an India I want to believe exists, but if it does I have no intention of celebrating it.
Slumdog Millionaire is only a joyous and uplifting film if you don’t hold the people in it to the same minimum, moral standards you might hold your neighbor too. Slumdog Millionaire is only a magnificent celebration of Indian culture if your view of Indian culture is one of inhumanity and evil. It’s as if we’re saying we don’t expect any better from “those people”. Sure the police chief is a torturer, but he talks nicely to people while he shocks their testicles. Sure the gangsters blind children to make them more effective beggars, but they feed them! We can’t possibly expect any better from “those people”, because they don’t know any better. Count me out. The world of Slumdog Millionaire doesn’t get a morality exemption just because the people in it are on a different continent and Slumdog Millionaire is not a joyous celebration of anything, except a heinous culture of vicious, primitive, immoral people which can only be survived by a miraculous act of divine intervention. I don’t care if it does end with a Bollywood dance number, that’s not “upbeat and colorful”.