“I don’t care if it’s a lie, as long as it’s entertaining.”
I thought there was much discussion going on about the depiction of slums in Slumdog Millionaire. I was wrong. There is much more than that. Much more than what is necessary. I spent the whole evening reading blogs of people in the US about the film. Blogs because I wanted to know what the audience thought about the film and not the critics. US because it looks like USA is being pulled into every other argument nowadays (including the British film Slumdog Millionaire). And almost everyone mentioned how they loved the film because it shows true love and not because of the slums. Well, all I can tell you that the love story wouldn’t have been loved if there were no slums in the film.
I adore City of God (2002). I can of course exhibit escapism and say that I loved it because of the narrative slickness and how well it was shot and so on. But the reality is obviously far from that. I loved it because of its violence. Because of its incessantly shocking images. Because of the sheer hopelessness it provides us. Hold on, before you label me as a sadistic psychopath, I’ll clarify my intentions. Poverty, violence and misery are things that instantly repel us in real life but interestingly fascinate us when we see it in cinema. Why? Because of the security of course. These are things that both tantalize us and drive us away. Call it guilty pleasure. One wants to be in it all, soak in it and get high in a strange sense. At the same time, snap out of it when it hurts his/her personal interests. The solution? Cinema.
“The cinema, substitutes for our gaze a world that corresponds to our desires” runs the famous Bazin quote. Indeed. It creates the safe distance between the viewer and the world that aids the resolution of the above mentioned conflict. The same safe distance that tourists of India find when they “empathize” with all the poverty they see it at first glance. In our case, the distance that Boyle safely assumes while filming. So why does it hurt us now? Because we all know in one measure or the other that this isn’t exactly what is happening out here. We are appalled that the west thinks that this is the “truth”. Hell, it is crazy. Read this headline from The Guardian:
“Danny Boyle’s BAFTA-nominated crowd –pleaser shows how blind Bollywood producers are to the reality of India”
Rolling on the floor laughing? Yes, because we have been here, done that and know it isn’t so at all. Now, in the same vein, if I had been a resident of Rio, I’ll probably be cursing Meirelles and the fans of City of God for assuaging their lowly needs by harnessing what isn’t true at all.
Take the case of our own films like Page 3 (2005) or Fashion (2008). I’m sure a large part of the Indian audience felt that that was all there is in the respective industries. But the people who are actually in these industries would be infuriated by the unwarranted sensationalism that Bhandarkar has capitalized upon. Any claims of the film’s firm footing on reality would be repudiated by them, naturally. However, these stereotypical situations that the film shows us do happen in those industries (or they wouldn’t have made it into the film at all). Sure, these are issues that plague the film and fashion world. But in no way, does it provide a clear picture of the industry.
There is an inherent laziness in the audience and critics about films that are “about” something. There is so much to see in this world and it is only wise to spend a minuscule time to each of them. As a result, we accept whatever thrown at us that is about something totally arcane to us as reality. We settle into a comfortable position and mould the ideas we see into easy stereotypes for future use. This is not just the case of the west and Slumdog Millionaire. This is the general tendency for all of us, isn’t it? I still have one dimensional ideas about the politics of Poland or the situation in Africa. Heck, what do we all think of the holocaust? Do we even bother to think about what were the other facets of it? Is that a mistake? May be. But may be not. There is no obligation for one to delve into everything and know actually what is really happening out there. This particularly is true when it comes to escapist cinema.
And like Page 3 and Fashion, Slumdog does not completely betray reality. It does present images that are true and are really happening out there. Note the word “images”. Images that are consequences of momentary gazes. Images that present too shallow a depiction of reality to be taken seriously. Anything that is deeply rooted in reality can be only by a person who has been so personally affected by it that it becomes a part of his thought process (a la The 400 Blows). So, even if Boyle was deeply affected by what he saw, he cannot do justice to it so soon. Hence, what he presents here is nothing but images that have fascinated him. Images that he knows that would instantly attract the audience. Images that he uses to present his Bollywood-like love story. Yes, he just “uses” these images. No claims of depiction of reality can be made here, for the focus of the film isn’t that at all (even if he intended to).
Now you may ask what’s with the cheesy title of the post? I want to know if anyone found it as defamatory act that slanders Mr. Bachchan or Mr. Fincher. Of course not, everyone knows its plain silly. One that acts as a marriage of two worlds to produce a laughable (hopefully enjoyable!) effect. And this isn’t far from what Mr. Boyle has done. And I feel nothing especially wrong in that. The same is the case with films like Borat (2006). It might have been outrageous in Kazakhstan. But the Americans found it clearly funny as they found something that appealed to them (namely the East’s view of the US and their own laughable facets). Where Borat was unanimously deemed as a film intended just for harmless fun, Slumdog is being slammed despite it being one.
Film critic Gautaman Bhaskaran notes in his review of the film:
“What is far more objectionable to me than this is the demeaning portrayal of India. Poverty is celebrated: destitution, squalor, beggar mafia and prostitution stare at us from the frames — magnified to distortion, glorified silly and used as tools of titillation to please the smug white world. Is this not what the developed West wants to see of India: its underbelly of crime and corruption that appears all black, dark and depressing with little grey or goodness.”
Now, I do hear that the film is appealing to the occidental audience because India is at the focal point of world economy. And that Slumdog is essentially a pacifier for the west to not get worked up on the country’s development. Mr. Bhaskaran says that this (misery, poverty) is what the west wants to see of India. I don’t know about the workings of the western mind, but I’m sure this is the case for all of us. I mean, how many times have we laughed at the mockery of the Chinese accent? How many times have we cringed at the epidemics of Africa and felt sympathy for it? Hell, how comfortable we have been whenever we call the western countries racially intolerant? So is this all that we want to see of the west? But well, these are issues about the darker side of the human psyche itself that we never want to delve into (our own “underbelly” if you please!).
So, the film would still have worked if it were set among the slums of South America or among the settlements of Africa, right? Yes, may be. But not as much as it would have worked in Mumbai. Because Mumbai alone has the three essential ingredients of the film – the repulsively attractive ingredient (poverty), the “change” ingredient (Mumbai’s changing face in the context of globalization) and Bollywood. As I said in my review (“It is a story that could possibly happen to anyone anywhere in the world – one of destiny and fate. So, why Mumbai? Well, Mumbai makes the possible probable.” )
And to close the circle, I comeback to the omnipotent opening quote. Everything that is there to Slumdog Millionaire, and to escapist entertainment in general, is summed up here. To use a oft-used cliché, Slumdog Millionaire is a mess. And what a glorious mess it is!