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Slumdog Millionaire' lacks warmth, accuracy

Slumdog Millionaire' lacks warmth, accuracy

Author: Ruth Vanita
Publication: Missoulian.com
Date: February 23, 2009
URL: http://www.missoulian.com/articles/2009/02/23/opinion/guest/guest71.tx

Gandhi famously termed Katherine Mayo's book "Mother India" (1927) a "drain inspector's report" because it focused exclusively on atrocities, and seemed to assert that "the drains are India." "Slumdog Millionaire" is that report updated. At a paradigmatic moment in the film, an Indian boy brutally beaten by an Indian adult tells a horrified American couple, "You wanted to see the real India n here it is." Holding him tenderly, the American woman gives him a hundred-dollar bill, and replies, "Here's the real America, son." No irony is indicated. The real India is a place of horror, the real America a place of compassion, and it takes a Britisher to see what no Indian director could.

After witnessing Jamal tortured by policemen, orphaned in a riot, nearly blinded by gangsters, nearly killed by a middle class family on a train, betrayed by his brother, repeatedly derided and beaten, and his girlfriend raped and almost prostituted, I wondered what was next n a battered wife, perhaps? Sure enough, his girlfriend appeared with a black eye bestowed by her live-in master. That such horrors occur in India is tragic. But when all of them befall one person in the course of 18 years the result is unwittingly farcical, recalling the sufferings inflicted by Tom Sawyer on Jim in "Huckleberry Finn." It's as if a black child in the U.S. were sold by his parents, lynched by the Klan, sodomized by a priest, caught in a school shooting, mutilated in a race riot, and beaten by the police, all in 18 years.

Unsurprisingly, the film is controversial in India and is running to near-empty theaters there, even while it is acclaimed in the West. Early in "Slumdog," Jamal is locked into an outhouse and wants to get out to see a film star so he jumps in the pit and emerges unrecognizable, coated in excreta. As an Indian, I felt as if the film poured excreta on much I hold dear. For instance, the beautiful song "Darshan do Ghanshyam?" ("Show yourself to me, Krishna, dark as a cloud; my eyes thirst for you") by blind medieval poet Surdas is familiar to schoolchildren in north India. But when Jamal, on the show that makes him a millionaire, is asked who wrote it, he knows only because gangsters taught it to the children they blinded.

Unbelievably, his school in the slum, instead of teaching such poems, teaches "The Three Musketeers" in English! Perhaps that's where Jamal learns the English that enables him to communicate perfectly with the American couple? If so, he's a uniquely lucky slum child.

It is one thing to use the cinematic grammar of fantasy and quite another to repeatedly violate internal logic. Jamal is asked what Ram holds in his hand. Every Indian knows this, just as every American knows that Christ died on a cross. But Jamal knows it only because a Hindu mob set fire to his home. This is like an American who has never encountered the cross except when the Klan burns one.

In the novel "Q&A," on which the movie is based, the hero Ram Mohammad Thomas (symbolizing secular India) is called Ram. Director Danny Boyle, in the interests of political correctness, makes Jamal a Muslim. In "Q&A," the TV show host's antagonism to Ram is explained by a previous association; in "Slumdog," his unexplained hostility is typical of nasty, classist Indians. This hostility defeats the purpose of such shows (the myth that anyone can succeed) and is untrue to reality n both hosts of the real-life Indian show were friendly with all competitors, regardless of class. If they had got one arrested and tortured, as the host in "Slumdog" does, the show would have shut down.

Boyle denies being inspired by Bollywood, even though Bombay movies have consistently developed the rags-to-riches narrative as a paean to human endeavor. Bombay movies are just as gritty as "Slumdog" in their depiction of violence; what they have and "Slumdog" lacks is warmth. The Hindi movie hero typically has a girlfriend, one or more close buddies, and a community in the slum. Boyle's hero, Jamal, obeying the modern heterosexual imperative, acquires a girlfriend, but the unremitting nastiness of every other character (with the partial exception of his brother) leaves him in a chilling isolation uncharacteristic of Indian cinema and society.

"Shantaram," an autobiographical novel by an Australian, set in Bombay, presents a far richer picture of life in a slum. If the forthcoming movie reproduces the novel's complexity, it will be interesting to see whether it wins any awards.

- Ruth Vanita is a professor of liberal studies at the University of Montana, and writes from Missoula.

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