NEWS

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January 25, 2009

Why Ben is wrong about Slumdog Millionaire

In his Oscar post, my esteemed colleague Ben backhandedly labels Slumdog Millionaire "everyone's favorite Third World pick-me-up." Perhaps this is a sign of wear from our hour-and-a-half-long debate over this film last week at the office.

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m a huge cheerleader for this movie. I feel like I've waited my whole life to see something like it. And my co-editor, try as he might, did not succeed in dampening my parade.

Ben's main tangle with Slumdog is its Bollywoodesque, Cinderellic love story. To him, both the film's artificial imposition of Western romantic ideas and its contrived use of the game show format render the film sappy, formulaic, and unrealistic.

Now it’s true that there’s nothing special about the love story in itself. And Jamal's rise to riches obviously requires complete (but well-deserved) suspension of disbelief.

But Slumdog's lovey-dovey Cinderella qualities, however irritating, can't be taken as ends in themselves. They’re just a fairly unoriginal means of achieving the optimistic endpoint the story can’t do without. (More on that in a bit.)

Think of the film as a balance sheet. Stack up all the terrible things that happen throughout, and the pile reaches sky-high. So how do you pump in enough optimism to even the score? Giving our hero 10 million rupees and the love of his life just about covers the damage.

And now, the $64,000 question: Why is it so important that hope and despair balance out in this film?

Because if you, like Ben, can’t get over the one-dimensionality of Slumdog's characters, you’re not seeing the big picture. The protagonist of this movie isn’t Jamal. The protagonist is India. The central struggle isn’t Jamal vs. the world; it’s really and truly a battle for India’s soul.

On one side of the battle we have the protective instinct of an older brother, the ultimate sacrifice of a girl caught between two men, and the pluckiness of a kid who would swim through a latrine for the biggest prize he can imagine. On the other side, there’s orphanhood, desperate poverty, bloody religious conflict, and men who blind children for their own gain.

So if you think "love conquers all" is the moral of the story, you’re not looking hard enough.

This film comes to you with a tale of just how dire things are in India’s slums. And in the same breath, it asks you if you can believe in a happy future for a couple of slumdogs—a boy and a girl who seem like they’ve been cursed since birth.

And if your answer is no—if you’re not even willing to believe that miracles can happen in a fictional portrayal of this godforsaken landscape—then India is doubly damned in real life.

That’s why I don't know whether to laugh or cry when this film gets pegged as escapist. Slumdog Millionaire asks a question I have a huge emotional stake in: “Is India’s fate already written?” So when someone dismisses it as a stupid love story with some nice location shots, I can’t help but drag them into the ring. I want those people to stare the question in the face, and come to the same conclusion the movie came to—the same conclusion that I came to.

And that’s why I want everyone to know: Ben's got nothing on Slumdog.