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Friday, February 6, 2009

Slumdogs and Millionaires


Slumdogs and Millionaires

By Partha Banerjee


Slumdogs will always be slumdogs, and millionaires will always be millionaires. An Indian slumdog will never be a millionaire. At least not the fantastic way the movie flaunted it.

Oscar-coaxing producer Christian Colson, director Danny Boyle, and the now-famed storytellers Simon Beaufoy and Vikas Swarup together create a violent, obnoxious, and even not-so-artistically-sound celluloid big-frame that’s likely to be showered with more profits and trophies. Talking about art, of course, in this day and age of in-your-face, obese entertainment, who’s afraid of Satyajit Ray, or even Ronny Howard or Spike Lee?

Slumdog Millionaire is completely in line with the new-trend, part-documentary, part-fiction, part-narrative, part-activist, West-glorified exploitation of Third World’s poor and vulnerable: Born Into Brothels, City of Joy, or Lagaan would come to mind as immediate examples. There’s no sense of history, peoples’ grassroots struggle, and in case of Slumdog, dignity; the big, loud screen shuffles fast in a vacuum. At least, Lagaan was fun.

I feel sorry for the young performers who poured their hearts out on and off camera (even though Westernized Dev Patel or Freida Pinto is too cool and sophisticated to be slum bastards; Freida’s Latika would quickly contract HIV from her years of Pila Street prostitution); I feel even sorrier for the young-generation Bollywood patriots who crave to see some Indian honor on a real international scene (as opposed to the 10-nation-only cricket gold rush). If I were their age, I’d be charged up too and pump my fist. After all, it’s all make-believe; after all, it’s all for the big green bucks. The axiomatic, end-of-the-day message is: “Don’t think too much into it.” Or plainly, don’t think.

But I’m older and wiser, and can still think. I’ve seen quite a bit of slum, poverty and destitution in my life; I’ve even seen how an open-air, wood-platform, makeshift toilet seat actually works. I have a feeling none of the millionaire moviemakers experienced the thick of it. Their deliberate attempt to desensitize the younger audience thus doesn’t work, not because it’s grotesque, but it’s violent with its horror, lies and distortions.

And would Amitabh Bachchan off his helicopter really sign an autograph for a feces-smeared rat who somehow rubbed past throngs of star-crazed crowd? No way -- it’s a lie. And that’s why it’s really horrible. Show poverty, show disparity – it’s fine, it’s even more than fine: show it the Ritwik Ghatak, Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Govind Nihalani, Shyam Benegal way. But don’t raise false optimism, don’t create false hope.

That “yellow” situation sets up the grimy, slimy, slithery and smelly theme early on; we quickly get to sense how the rest of the melodrama will unfold. In a disjunct, average-made way, Slumdog entertains us, with all the prescribed elements right off the Hollywood-Bollywood book, including the Devdas-type sacrifice of Salim and his Godfather-style death. In its fervent zeal to show a “real” India, the movie steals poverty, kiddy sex, hunger, shooting guns, and even attempted comedy from Salam Bombay, Born Into, and that fresh line of products.

The laundry list of essential elements was complete even with a communal riot scene; of course, Hindu fascists in Mumbai have slaughtered Muslim slum dwellers in the 1992 post-Babri-Mosque demolition era. But even the dumbest Shiv Sena or BJP goon knows that mob lynching is never a smart thing to do without provocation; and Jamal-Salim’s mom and washerwoman neighbors were suddenly rounded up and butchered without a provocation. Heck, even Aparna Sen in Mr. and Mrs. Iyer had set a believable stage for Hindu-Muslim violence.

The overarching, majorly ludicrous thread is the game itself. It appeared as if Who Wants to Be a Millionaire the Indian variety was tailored into Jamal’s opportune and handy slum experiences: an American tourist couple to display their American generosity put a 100-dollar bill (!) in suffering Jamal’s hand, and the blinded singer boy – whom Jamal rediscovers years later – touches it, knows it’s a dollar bill, and helps him to learn the name of Ben Franklin printed on the money. Talk about preposterous!

Oh yes, blinding of the poor is not unheard-of in India: we remember the Bhagalpur atrocities during Indira Gandhi’s regime, and similar grotesque human rights abuse in Narendra Modi’s Gujarat.

But in the movie, it was too imposed, too far-fetched, and tear-jerking. Such was the array of meaningless police torture situations; I’m yet to figure out what it was really all about, and what Irrfan Khan – the good-bad-good cop was trying to do in the first place! Then again, today’s it’s not the time to reason; it’s only time to accept whatever is thrown at your face, especially if it comes from the millionaire movie powerhouses, and especially if it’s blessed by corporate media, Hollywood, and AMPAS-Oscar.

A slumdog will always be a slumdog; a millionaire will always be a millionaire, especially if you can deprive the poor shanty actors and their parents of their dues, and profit more. The Indian slumdog will never be a millionaire, however hard Hollywood-Bollywood wants us to believe it.


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