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Slumdog Millionaire: A Perspective

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on February 16, 2009 3 Comments

The last thing I wanted to do on a cold, rainy, windy night was to venture out for a late-night movie experience. But a Brazilian friend’s rather last minute invitation to watch the critically acclaimed movie “Slumdog Millionaire” was too compelling. As we rushed over to Emeryville for the last show of the night, I kept telling myself to keep an open mind. I’d been given too much feedback: from friends who decried the raw violence, others who loved the rags-to-riches narrative, still others who thought it was just “okay” (my parents, in India, belonged to this last group). My friend’s somewhat to-hell-with-caution driving and the fact that the car’s headlights didn’t work only mildly distracted me from my reservations about watching the film, and what I would take out of it.

We got there just in time, and, soon after we had settled in separate spots in the conspicuously empty hall-he likes to sit by the aisle, and I like to sit in the center (this point is only important insofar as this movie is quite violent, and watching it while feeling marooned in an empty hall is quite something)-the movie began.

[Spoiler alert!] The movie itself felt more familiar than I had expected it to be, given that it is a British production. The early sequences of police brutality are very common in Indian films, and reported frequently in the media, and while I cringed inwardly several times, there was no element of shock in my reaction. The beloved game of cricket rang another familiar note, though it was contextualized with brutal violence: policemen trying to beat up slum kids, an abusive ganglord forcing his mistress to submission. People dangerously perched on top of (moving) trains to avoid paying the fare struck another familiar note. And little kids who have been kidnapped and forcibly blinded or amputated so they can collect more money while begging-that story is painfully common.

What surprised me most was how familiar the slums felt. While I grew up in a campus in the rather privileged and closed-in setting of South Delhi (India), slums circled the campus like little satellite villages; they are a familiar, an “integrated” part of the Indian landscape, though I didn’t realize until yesterday just how much I consider them a part of my imagining of India, just how much the slums are in some way home. During my trip to New Delhi last month, I had occasion to visit several times the school that the orphans I am working with attend, and it’s bang in the middle of a nearby slum. The scenes from Slumdog paralleled everything I saw there: the open drains, the stench of which almost make it through the screen; the piles of discarded plastic and garbage everywhere; the human and animal excreta you have to watch for every step you take; the tremendous foot traffic through the narrow lanes; the loud devotional and filmy music blaring from old tape-run stereos and radios; and the spirit, the indomitable spirit of the people who live in conditions that are too horrific to describe, and impossible to capture in words or moving images. And yet millions of people make their lives there.

On a slightly different note, the language shifts in the movie were a little jarring. I find it impossible not to read subtitles if they are provided, and so even through Mumbai Hindi I understood (the language of the first third of the film), I found myself reading the English translations. The transition from Hindi to English is unexplained in the film, and what results is what one critic, Mukul Kesavan, called “a hybrid so odd.” He further went on to say, “”the transition from child actors who in real life are slum children to young actors who are, just as clearly, middle-class anglophones is so abrupt and inexplicable that it subverts the “realism” of the brilliantly shot squalor in which their lives play out.” This interferes, as he goes on to say, with the suspension of disbelief necessary for enjoying the film’s narrative. I totally agree.

There’s much talk about whether this movie is “Indian” in sentiment and feel. That’s too big a question for me to tackle here. What I walked away with was overpowering homesickness. Was it the narrative? The Indian people? The Hindi? Not so much. It was strangely the moving images of the slumscape that took me home.

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3 Responses to “Slumdog Millionaire: A Perspective”

  1. Rick Ayers on: 16 February 2009 at 4:29 pm

    Aha, Usree, I have been waiting for your response and I’m glad it is so personal and direct, rather than trying to make an overall declaration on this complex piece. The language, yes, I was waiting to hear your thoughts on that (something I could not comment on). Of course the film may display the weaknesses of the people who made it but must also reflect the great respect, and extensive collaboration, that Danny Boyle brought to the project. It had that Bollywood fairy tale ending which was great; but did not shrink from the deep contradictions. Perhaps a paean to Mumbai the way Amores Perros is to Mexico City.

  2. Swati on: 20 February 2009 at 2:30 pm

    Interesting review – I belong to the camp that liked the movie and am rooting for its win in the Oscars. I am not a big fan of the rags to riches theme but I loved how India was portrayed.

    There is a sense of blindness in portraying India through the old black and white movies as poverty stricken, hopeless, helpless and needy. The blindness continues on the flip side in describing India in its riches like in Devdas and in many of the Bollywood movies. SlumDog tried to show us the reality of the rags without dismissing the riches, and showed us the glamour keeping us aware of the ruins.. It is India!!..as I know it..as I understand it. Perhaps I am homesick too. I dunno!

  3. Zachary Evans on: 29 August 2010 at 11:12 am

    bollywood movies are nice and cheeky, that is all i have to say ‘:*

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