The Hands of Bresson

Sundry observations on the art of cinema and world film culture

Going Sour on Slumdog Millionaire

with 3 comments


Call me an orphan. But the hype machine around Fox Searchlight’s slickly marketed, award-emblazoned East-West game-show escapade Slumdog Millionaire is sorely in need of some straight-talking analysis and intelligent scrutiny, not least because I find the film to be anything but “irresistible.”

Slumdog Millionaire took top honors last night at the Golden Globes ceremony, which is hardly surprising given how well Danny Boyle’s hyperkinetically flashy, rags-to-riches Mumbai romance has played with legions of smitten viewers from Los Angeles to London. Plowing ahead to the Oscars at Titanic speed, the film has already amassed a pile of trophies from the National Board of Review, SAG, WGA, DGA, various critics’ associations (Chicago, New York, L.A., London), and most auspiciously, diverse audiences at a handful of North American film festivals.

Where, however, are the voices of dissent? How can a savvy, super-hip British director depict the life of a lower-caste Indian with such cartoonishly grotesque condescension and sentimentalism (perhaps only Kipling would have dunked his urchin protagonist in a vat of shit and asked us to laugh at him) or gloss over a bloody Hindu massacre, employed here for character-establishing narrative background, without so much as a “hey, now …” from the evaluative classes? Why have so few professional scribes scrutinized the bitter underlying assumptions of Millionaire (who needs money?), the boneheaded romanticism, the ludicrously sanguine tenor of a film that Boyle and his writer, Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty), could have titled Poverty: The Adventure? Where, at the least, are the op-eds by subaltern theorists and Edward Said–besotted postcolonial scolds? I know, I know: the point is “entertainment.” This is feel-good escapism, and next to everyone is feeling good about escaping the onus of their reviewing duties; who can resist Jamal and Latika in that made-to-please Bollywood video over the end credits? How endearing. But why in heaven’s name are we leaving the naysaying in the hands of Salman Rushdie, a brilliant magical-realist writer but not so incisive off-the-cuff movie critic, who takes issue with the film because … it isn’t realistic enough.

As he tells David Carr, “I’m not a very big fan of ‘Slumdog Millionaire.” I think it’s visually brilliant. But I have problems with the story line. I find the storyline unconvincing. It just couldn’t happen. I’m not adverse [sic] to magic realism but there has to be a level of plausibility, and I felt there were three or four moments in the film where the storyline breached that rule.” (Hello, Salman? I love you, my man. But could you please tell me how plausibility figures in the hallucinogenic historico-fabulist narratives of Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses? How about a Dickens novel? Or a Disney film? Oh, never mind.) At least Rushdie has the mirthful good sense to admit that “I’m the only person who thinks this.” No, thankfully Salman, you’re not. But my issues with the film go a bit further than whether or not the events depicted could actually happen. (By that measure, I’d hate to see your home DVD library …) Does it really matter that the film, a fairy-tale music video, is preposterously far-fetched?

One of the best reviews I’ve read of the film, by indieWIRE’S Eric Hynes, takes a dim view of Slumdog, too, likening Boyle’s love-blinded idiot savant Jamal to another memorable factotum of our movie heritage: Forrest Gump. You should read the review in its entirety to get a line-by-line sense of Hynes’s reactions, but he resolves his argument thusly: “In championing Forrest Gump’s purity, Robert Zemeckis’s film mocked both U.S. history and the complexities of adulthood, helping to fan the flames of American anti-intellectualism to a towering mid-Nineties blaze. Boyle’s ode to dumb love and circumstance hasn’t the same deliberation, but “Slumdog Millionaire” does manage to make bombastic offense. Jamal’s success on the TV show makes him a hero to slumdogs everywhere (they gather around televisions in the cities and on the farms with that nostalgic fellow-feeling), but he doesn’t care about being rich. He just wants to be with Latika. Quite instructive to the billions of poor people in the world foolishly aspiring to subsistence, let alone wealth. See that heartwarming montage of Jamal through the years, laughing despite the begging, stealing, and enslavement? He’s postcolonial, post-material, totally adorable. Love is all Jamal needs. Love and a lobotomy.”

Word. And all we orphans need are a few more gestures of disavowal from the critical establishment, because the slush pile of Slumdog encomiums in papers (and blogs) of repute are making us feel lonelier than usual. And not so cheerfully honest about our allegiances.


Written by eyemaster

January 31, 2009 at 7:13 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Brilliant piece! And I agree…and now we’re being dismissed as being contrary in the wake of the film’s uber-success. It doesn’t surprise me that Rushdie isn’t a big fan, either, though visually I thought it was far from brilliant.

    Check out my thougths and the debate raging on my blog:

    David H. Schleicher

    February 1, 2009 at 12:00 am

    • Thanks, David. Actually, I saw the film back in November, right before the hype machine went into overdrive, and I was generally puzzled by the mostly positive reactions I was hearing. The film seemed to be the furthest thing from “Bollywood,” in terms of sensibility, and I found Slumdog’s “political unconscious,” if you will, even more suspect. Now the tepid public response in Mumbai, reported in a number of outlets, has kind of underscored that point. If there is a sustained Slumdog backlash (and I’m betting there will be), then I don’t mind being in the contrarian’s corner. Glad to know there’s some company!


      February 1, 2009 at 12:42 am

  2. Back in early December when I saw the film just as the “buzz” started to slowly build, I thought I was the only one…and then I actually started doubting myself and wondering if I had just been in a bad mood that day or simply didn’t “get it”. But I’m glad to see there are some people of like minds, and I am happy to present myself as one of the few voices of sanity that spoke out against the film early on. I think if it wins Best Picture at the Oscars even more people like us (and Rushdie) will come out of the woodwork.

    David H. Schleicher

    February 1, 2009 at 4:54 pm

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