Thursday, December 25, 2008

Thoughts on Slumdog Millionaire

[Update: for a much more astute review see Great Bong's review at Random Thoughts of a Demented Mind.]

After the (Anchorage International Film) festival, there were just two movies we wanted to see: Milk and Slumdog Millionaire. I've already posted on Milk, which I think is a very well made and powerful movie. We saw Slumdog the other day.

India is probably one of the more fascinating places on this globe. Even calling it a 'place' is misleading. It's a different world, a different time, a different reality. It's got a huge population. It is a mix of so many landscapes and cultures. It has incredibly rich and unimaginably poor people. It's part of the 21st Century, yet the last ten centuries, at least, continue to exist simultaneously. Perhaps most significant, India probably is the biggest countervailing force to the West's materialism. (The whole idea of the movie - winning on the tv show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire - would seem to belie that characterization, but India is still big enough to swallow up and trivialize the tens, maybe hundreds, of millions of Indians who are caught up in Western materialism.) India, for centuries, has had the most advanced knowledge of internal human capabilities. Indian yogis and the many other spiritual traditions have mastered the discipline, certainly equivalent to the discipline required in Western science, of gaining control of one's own human body. Rather than being a technical fix you can plug in, it requires decades, lifetimes even, of focus and discipline and simultaneously letting go.

The world of English literature has been enriched hugely by Indian writers writing novels in English. Salman Rushdie. Vikram Seth. Arundhati Roy. The Indian movie industry has its own traditions ranging from the austere films of Satyajit Ray  [Jan 2015 - noticed the old link was bad, changed to another] or the psychedelic exhuberance of Bollywood.

So, I was looking forward to this British movie told from an Indian perspective, a boy from the slums of Bombay who wins big in the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. [update: Yes, the filmmaker is Western, but unlike many other Western made films, the focus isn't on a Westerner in the other culture, such as in The Last King of Scotland, or Blood Diamonds.]

I was only moderately pleased when I left the movie. Probably without the hype it would have been much more enjoyable. Yes, go see the movie. It's fun. It's a good movie. It teaches more about India than most Americans will ever know. It's just not the great movie that is being hyped. It gives glimpses of India. The way the story is woven together - which I won't disclose - is clever and moves both narratives along nicely. The bollywood ending is contagious.

After a couple of days of thought - no, I didn't sit and think about this for three days, but rather, my brain distilled it in the background while I did other things - I can articulate one key issue I have with the movie, which may be the cause of my disappointment.

Despite the fact that the three main characters are children of the slums of Bombay, and that much of the movie takes place in those slums, the movie manages to use the slums as a backdrop only. I'm not sure how it happened, but we don't at all get to know the slum, to feel it, to smell it, to ache with it and for it. Perhaps the rise out of the slum of the three main characters makes it less menacing. Reagan was called the teflon President, none of the problems of his administration stuck to him. The three characters - while enormously impacted by the slums - seem to have that same teflon coating. The problems of the slums - perhaps the outhouse scene illustrates this most graphically - are there, but they slide off and we go to the next scene. It's not that the film doesn't depict horrible situations - rioters rampaging through the slums to kill Muslims, a child's eyes gouged out so he can beg more successfully. But somehow, through the main characters, we seem to be immune from all this.

Maybe conveying the slums is just too overwhelmingly depressing. But I think it can be done. Gregory David Roberts, for example in his book Shantaram seems to capture some of the spirit of the Bombay slums. He makes us feel its oppression, but also to see that despite what looks totally unlivable from a Western perspective, the inhabitants, like everyone else, live rich lives with joys as well as suffering. But he had over 900 pages to make it work. I'm hoping director Mira Nair, with Johnny Depp, can keep that sense of the slums in the film version scheduled for a 2011 release.

I heard in an interview that it was Danny Boyle's (the director) first time in India. Maybe that explains it. We've seen a number of movies that featured India in the last couple of years, most of which seemed more authentic, connected more on the emotional level.

The trailer is so promotional that it trivializes the whole movie. So I'm putting up this clip I found online. This is just one scene, not particularly noteworthy.

[Update, 22 Feb 2009 - Thai time: This NY Times article discusses what I tried to get at with my comments about Shantaram - that the slums of Mumbai are really far richer, safer, and more productive than our stereotypes.]


  1. Hey Steve,
    Was just looking for comments on "Slumdog". A friend and I who both had read Shantaram felt like someone read the book, and used some of it for ideas for their own movie. We both felt their were too many coincidences! I cant wait for Shantaram, I just hope they dont ruin it! Your blog is the first that popped up when I threw my question out. I lived in Girdwood for over 20 years and LOVE to travel. I have been quite a few places and India is definitely the last best travel destination on the planet. Still have my place in Girdwood. Love AK. just too much to give it up. But for now living in southern Oregon on my 40 acres surrounded by wilderness. Its a nice change for now. Adopted some wild horses to boot! Hope you guys have fun in Thailand!

  2. Good to hear from you Karen. I just don't think this is a GREAT movie. It's fun, entertaining, but it's just Hollywood with different scenery.

    I haven't seen all the nominated films, but for my money, Milk was clearly a better movie.


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