January 28, 2009

Slumdog debate temporarily re-opened

University of Chicago parent John Schapiro sent us a thoughtful addition to our Slumdog Millionaire debate. Perhaps because he's "personally ambivalent" about the film, he's more forgiving than Ben and less dewy-eyed than me. He's also probably more culturally literate than either of us:

"[The] big point Ben misses about Slumdog Millionaire is that it is a Western take on Bollywood. All the stuff he criticizes as being non-Indian -- the warmed-over Dickens, the Hollywood romance -- is meat and potatoes (curry and chapati?) of contemporary Indian popular culture. It is profoundly Indian, in the same way that Yoga classes and the Zen drug dealer in American Beauty can be profoundly American, or Gauguin was profoundly French, or Hello Kitty profoundly Japanese. We (Americans) are completely comfortable with the cultural masala in which we live, one where we can be alive to evocations of Sophocles, Jane Austen, George Cukor, Miyazake Hiyao, and Tupac Shakur in the space of 15 minutes between commercials... We know that glasses don't really make America Ferrera or Anne Hathaway unattractive, but we still love it after the makeover montage when everyone pretends to be suddenly knocked out because they're wearing contacts and showing some cleavage.

"As far as I can tell, Indians are just as smart as Americans, and they can handle cultural syncretism and romantic idealization fine, too... They seem affirmatively to enjoy having Western dead-white-male chestnuts, literary and cinematic, "translated" into Hindi with a few extra costume changes, at least one sari-in-the-rain sequence, and a dream-song shot at the Pyramids of Giza. So Slumdog's not-at-all disguised appropriations from Oliver Twist are part of making it an Indian story. (And, honestly, Dickens' London probably has more in common with contemporary Mumbai than it does with Philadelphia or Chicago.) And the evidence also shows that they are reasonably aware that True Love may not Conquer All, at least not all the time, but the general public still likes its stories to end with impossibly beautiful people just on the brink of happily ever after, having bridged the gender gap and more often than not restrictions of class, ethnicity, and caste. Like, um, us.


"What I see as the central project of Slumdog is taking a Bollywood stucture and plot (and nothing is more Bollywood than two brothers, one angelically good and the other slowly losing his soul to evil, sharing the same woman over the course of a decade or more), and showing some of the grit that Bollywood tends to stylize. So we get somewhat more realistic portrayals of poverty, hunger, exploitation, cruelty than Hindi cinema generally offers, even if Hindi cinema has plenty to say about them, too. Slumdog is inordinately proud of itself for doing that, for showing the shit that Jamal has to swim though to get Amitabh's autograph, and for its Bollywood-mocking credit sequence in which everyone dances like klutzes.

In other news, I don't know any Indians who liked this movie as much as I did. Guess I have the outlying desi opinion.

P.S. If you have more Slumdog trash talk for us, comment or hit us up.