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January 25, 2009

Slumdog, short response

How do you get Slumdog Millionaire from Oliver Twist? Just add a dash of a India and a pinch of suck.

MY esteemed fellow-traveler on the road to wisdom, Supriya Sinhababu, writes in her post that Slumdog Millionaire is really about "a battle for India's soul." Slumdog Millionare is about as Indian as rock music with sitars. The movie emerges from a long Western literary tradition, starting probably with Dickens, that depicts the triumph of a pure, uncorrupted child over adults who attempt to variously seduce, debase, or destroy him. In other words, it's about being moral in an immoral and/or amoral world. In these stories, the child is burdened with all sorts of horrible handicaps from the beginning--he is usually poor, orphaned, and perhaps also sickly. But he usually has some sort of redeeming "light" in his soul, like kindness or intelligence. The bulk of the story narrates his moral trials, in which he is seduced by evil, vacillates, then rights himself with a combination of luck, grit and that special guiding "light."

Its simple black and white morality, contrived story-telling and fundamentally undeveloped protagonist make Slumdog Millionaire one of the lesser examples of this venerable genre that encompasses everything from "David Copperfield" and "Oliver Twist" to Roald Dahl's "Matilda" and "South Park."

Instead of seeing in art what we hope and want to see, I think it's important to judge it on its own merits. If I went in search of a movie that tries to tackle something as weighty and complex as the fate of contemporary India, could Slumdog possibly satisfy? I don't think so, and I don't think that's even its aim. Little attempt is made to address the political or religious issues facing the country, though there are momentary allusions to some of them. Instead, the movie offers an unabashedly sentimental and romantic portrait of not only its characters, but even, to a certain extent, of Indian poverty. After all, though there's surely much suffering in the movie, the message seems to be that strong relationships can make the suffering bearable, even touching or romantic (cf the scene where Jamal invites his soon-to-be love interest out of the rain.) And although many of the scenes depict great deprivation, they also focus on the many highly entertaining adventures the boys have.

There's more to say about this, but for now, I think I've said enough.