April 14, 2009

Justify My Netflix: Slumdog Millionaire

(Like many Netflix customers, I too can get quite lax with the timely watching and returning of my movies, which of course defeats the entire purpose of having a flat-rate rental plan in the first place. To combat that, I am now writing standardized mini-reviews of each and every movie I end up watching through Netflix, both instantly and on DVD. Don't forget, all previous 'Justify My Netflix' reviews can be found on CCLaP's main movie page.)

Slumdog Millionaire

Today's movie: Slumdog Millionaire, 2008 (Amazon | IMDB | Netflix)

Why I added it to my queue: Because it's the latest "Little Movie That Could" (despite, you know, being directed by the creator of past big-budget Hollywood-friendly fare as Trainspotting, Sunshine, 28 Days Later and more), coming seemingly out of nowhere to win a pile of awards at this year's Oscars, including Best Picture. Because like many of Danny Boyle's movies, it's predicated on an inventive, just-believable conceit I find fascinating: in this case, that a former slum kid from the Indian city of Mumbai (once Bombay) would happen to go through a whole series of funny, heartbreaking life experiences as a child that just happen to exactly match a series of impossible-to-answer questions on India's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, turning him into a national hero overnight and prompting charges that he of course must've cheated. (The majority of the film, then, is of the main character reliving the experiences in flashback, as he explains each one in order during a police interrogation.) Because there are a whole lot of Indians, as well as radically liberal Westerners, who don't like this movie one bit, to the perplexity of most Americans who have collectively gone apesh-t crazy for it, and I wanted to understand for myself why this is.

The reality: To understand everything you need to know about Slumdog Millionaire and why it's inspired such a diversity of reactions, simply understand this: that it is a typical Charles-Dickens-type story translated into a modern Indian setting, and especially the now-glittering Mumbai which is still finalizing its transition out of once-scummy Bombay. And so that's why Westerners and especially Americans have been going so nuts for it, because we love us a good Dickens story on a seemingly endless basis: you know, the story of a noble but abused kid, stuck in the squalor of a pre-socialized urban center at the height of its Industrial-Age years, who scraps and cons for his existence each day and by adulthood has learned a lot about how to properly live life, not just as a poor person but as a potentially rich one through a bizarre twist in fate at the end of each tale. But let's face facts -- Dickens didn't exactly paint the most glittering portrait of London life in the 1800s, which is the same reason so many Indians don't like this movie either -- because, they rightly claim, it portrays India as mostly an endless series of pre-industrialized slums and human cesspools, where routinely the citizens there treat each other not much better than animals. And furthermore, these Indians and radically liberal Westerners say, this is exactly how most Americans like to think of India, so that the place isn't threatening to them -- as a bumbling, backwards place, full of dirty toothless orphans living on the sides of giant trash piles on the grim edges of barely functioning megapolises.

But the fact is that they're both right, which we can again prove by using Dickens as an example -- that although there were certainly great things about 1800s London that Dickens never even bothered to touch on in his ouevre, this was also never Dickens' point or aim, but instead to bring light to an aspect of society he felt deserved more and rarely got it, not a "fair" picture of British life in the height of the empire but a look at the secret cost that empire paid in order to maintain its hegemony. In this, then, we can perhaps see Slumdog Millionaire as both a celebration and cautionary tale, directed at an India that for the first time in its history is right now becoming one of the world's major powers. In many ways, India is going through its own "Victorian" period right now -- a time when industry is picking up steam, when more and more expats are coming home to bolster the domestic economy, a powerful enough country now to be able to band with Brazil, Russia and China if it wants (forming the much ballyhooed "BRIC" coalition) to become the so-called third new "ad-hoc superpower" to compete with the US and EU over complicated global issues within the UN. It's a fascinating time for India, a realization more and more Americans are making, which is why more and more about Indian culture is suddenly becoming so big in the US these days; and a movie like this serves both as a reminder of what's so great about that nation, and what pervasive lingering issues they now have to face, if they truly want to crank up their society into so-called "first-world status" (a Cold-War term becoming rapidly obsolete these days, I know, but one that fits in this case).

If I had watched it when it first came out: Um, I did.

Strangest piece of trivia: This movie was originally to have been shot entirely in English, but Loveleen Tandan (at the time serving as the Indian casting director) suggested persuasively that at least some of the film should be shot in the native Hindi language, an attitude Boyle himself came to more and more as the production continued. All in all, an entire third of the movie ended up being shot using Hindi dialogue (and Tandan promoted to "Director of Indian footage" as a result); Boyle got the studio to okay this by literally lying to them, and telling them that only ten percent of the footage was in Hindi.

Worth your time? By all means; but as its detractors say, don't forget as well that there's a whole other side to India and especially Mumbai than what's on display here. That said, have fun picking out the Indian Fagan and Indian Artful Dodger and all the rest, as you make your way through this truly delightful and truly Dickensian tale. (And of course stick around for the closing credits too, shot as a hybrid of Bollywood dance number and slick MTV video, yet another aspect of Indian culture surprisingly catching on in a non-ironic way among more and more Americans.)

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:45 PM, April 14, 2009. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |