"Tell Me How You Cheated" : questions about the cultural discrepancies of Slumdog Millionaire
“Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees. How did he do it? A) He cheated. B) He’s lucky. C) He’s a genius. D) It is written.”
"MUMBAI, India —Slumdog Millionaire was made about the people of Mumbai's teeming slums, but it was not made for them.
In the squalid shantytowns of Nehru Nagar, where parts of the Oscar-nominated film were shot, there was little of the excitement that has swept India since the low budget film emerged from obscurity to win four Golden Globes and 10 Oscar nominations. --- from an AP article by Erika Kinetz
---from Jim Emerson's "Oscars: No comment (almost)"
1) I confess that I largely enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire as I have enjoyed most of Danny Boyle's movies extending back to Shallow Grave (1995). Trainspotting still strikes me as his best film, in part due to its edginess, its critique of middle class consumerist values, and its cheerful punk nihilism. Slumdog Millionaire makes some nods towards Trainspotting, specifically in the way both movies feature a character who will brave immersion in fecal matter to arrive at some badly needed goal, but I found myself suspicious of Slumdog's uplift as soon as I left the theater. The film has many pleasures, but it is also very manipulative, as Jim Emerson pointed out, leaving me wondering how much Boyle might have "cheated" to gain to its critics' "mad love," as Peter Travers puts it in his Rolling Stone review.
2) Why do we need Boyle (who comes from Manchester, England) to direct this story taken from the Indian novel Q and A by Vikas Swarup? He hired Indian co-director, Loveleen Tanda, to help him, but I still wonder, given all of the Oscar hoopla, how much Western filmgoers seem to prefer Western directors' interpretations of India.
3) For example, there's the mixed reaction to Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited. I enjoyed that film too, mostly because of its brilliant art direction, but it remains a movie compromised by three Western brothers obtaining Beatles-esque enlightenment from Indian mise en scene more than anything else, leaving the Indian characters as little more than window dressing.
4) Critic Jim Emerson suggests that the characters in SM are one-dimensionally good or evil, but I found Irrfan Khan's role and performance as the police inspector more subtly indicative of the film's shift in emphasis. Khan initially appears sadistic, certainly a "bad guy." Khan, however, has a history of playing more likable roles, such as the dad whose son dies in The Darjeeling Limited, and the father in the film version of Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake. As a result, I think the audience is primed to not hate the police inspector. He also becomes more sympathetic as the film progresses, ultimately "believing" Jamal's stories about his life.
5) What about Jalim's torture at the beginning of SM? Is it really necessary in terms of the story, or does Boyle ramp up the atrocities in the first half of the film to help create a better sense of uplift in the end? Boyle films so many of the film's harsher scenes from the two brothers' perspectives--the assault on their mother, the beatings, the electrocution of Jamal's toes, and especially the blinding of a child (which caused one woman behind me to walk out of the cinema)--the viewer is left pummeled, and therefore all the more primed to enjoy the big switch to a much happier conclusion. The sweet end of the film reminded me of nothing so much as The Graduate. As Owen Glieberman writes for Entertainment Weekly: "with Boyle working at full boil, it [the film] is also an unabashed concoction — a movie that turns the horror of broken Indian childhoods into a whooshingly blithe, in-your-face picaresque. Not since Les Miz have you felt this gooey-good about kids whose lives were this bad."
6) For all of the film's beauty, its redemptive sense of Mumbai rising out of its poverty by sheer street smart hustle, and its dream of extreme class mobility, I still wonder about how much Danny Boyle deliberately packaged this story for Western consumption (and by extension, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences). Even Jamal caters to the Western tourists' preconceptions by lying about how "lazy, good for nothing, Indian beggars" wrote the Taj Mahal guide books. In turn, how much does Slumdog Millionaire play on our guilt, fears, and dreams of Indian enlightenment?
Postscript: further discussion from Mark Magnier of the LA Times.