Tuesday, December 14, 2010

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008): India and Poverty

Much of the first half of Slumdog Millionaire consists of representation after representation of possibly the worst poverty in the world in the city now known as Mumbai.  The film’s many flaws are easily forgivable because, despite depicting a society irretrievably broken, it is a piteous plea for decency in a place where it is most needed.  Two brothers, Jamal (played by Ayush Mahesh as a young child, by Tanay Hemant Chheda as a teenager and Dev Patel as an adult) and Salim (Azharuddin Muhammad Ismail as child, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala as a teenager and Madhur Mittal Prem Anil Kapoor as adult) are joined by a neighborhood girl named Latika (Rubina Ali as child, Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar as teenager and Freida Pinto as adult) in their “escapades,” and almost predictably refer to themselves as “The Three Musketeers.”  The children play cricket on airport runways, rummage through garbage heaps for anything to help them survive, witness their mother (Sanchita Choudhary) and other Moslem neighbors killed by a mob of enraged Hindus, are enslaved by the most ruthless of local opportunists, Maman (Ankur Vikal) and witness an acquaintance of theirs be blinded at the hands of Maman to enhance this child’s ability to beg on the streets.  The tedium of their situation is only slightly relieved at one point when the two brothers escape, discover the Taj Mahal, and make themselves into self appointed tour guides for the gullible foreign tourists (made up greatly of Americans). However, Jamal (always cursed by too tender of heart) is determined to free Latika from the grips of Maman before she is forced into prostitution.
Interwoven is the story of the adult Jamal featured as a contestant on the India equivalent of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.  Jamal remarkably wins 20 million rupees on the show, but because of his background the authorities become suspicious that he may have cheated.  And so in a series of flashbacks, Jamal explains (under the most brutal of interrogations) how he knows what the god, Rama, held in his right hand, how he knew that Benjamin Franklin was on the American one-hundred dollar bill (though he can’t name Gandhi as being on the 100 rupee note), how he knew that Samuel Colt had invented the revolver, and how he knew about India’s greatest celebrity and greatest cricket player.  His knowledge of these things could almost always be traced back to some memorable and often tragic incident that he would recall from his childhood.  The chief interrogator eventually lets Jamal go because he becomes convinced of Jamal’s remarkable honesty.  Jamal never feels the need to veer from the truth because, no matter how sadistic the interrogators may have been, Jamal had already in his young life faced so much more that was even worse.
The story does not end completely on a happy note.  Jamal’s violent and passionate brother, Salim, twice saves both Latika and Jamal from a life of poverty and probably death.  Salim first shoots Maman to death with a revolver he kept that no one else knew about, and Salim is then immediately recruited by Javed (Mahesh Manjrekar) the crime syndicate chieftain for much of the city.  Eventually, Salim even kills Javed to allow Latika to escape and rejoin Jamal, but in the process Salim is also killed by Javed’s goons.  Latika and Jamal reunite and we are to assume finally escape their lives of poverty with Jamal’s winnings from the game show.
With a plot as improbable as the one we are given in Slumdog Millionaire, it should be no surprise that certain aspects of the movie come off as a bit too slick or even contrived.  That the three main characters survived even as long as they did would, under the circumstances, be a great stretch.  We no doubt know that with India being a nation of one billion people, Jamal’s winnings on the game show are truly a one in a billion shot.  Yet movie audiences are so enthralled with the characters of Latika and Jamal that there was no question the director had to give them an ending more befitting than what would happen in almost all other incidents involving children in similar circumstances.  Artistically speaking, we had to give them a beautiful ending because the two characters were such beautiful people.  The movie is so tinged in realism throughout much of its showing that the director is justified in doing so.  (The director by the way was Danny Boyle, who also directed Trainspotting, the graphic depiction of a number of characters injecting themselves with all sorts of narcotics.)  I’m guessing that a note of optimism had to be incorporated into an otherwise depressing film so that movie members would not walk away with the feeling that it would be futile to even try to combat the kind of poverty portrayed.
It goes without saying that there is no excuse for the misery that the children of Mumbai must endure on a daily basis.  Director Boyle mostly shies away from pointing fingers at who are to blame for the situation with the possible exception of focusing in on corrupt local officials that do nothing to prevent local adults from exploiting others.  Perhaps he is right in doing so because listing all those that are to blame would be endless.  Nietzsche said that no one is as great of a liar as the indignant person.  It’s easy to get angry at the situation we see portrayed on the screen, but what are we doing to improve it?  The most I do is write about it and maybe throw in a dollar or two in the Salvation Army buckets hanging outside of shopping malls.  Meanwhile, the dollars I consume in a day are almost as much as that consumed by these children during an entire year.  (We can only hope that they receive some sort of spiritual benefit that may be foreign to the rest of us.)  Capitalist societies will sing the mantra of free trade as a remedy as if this in itself would be doing the third-word nations a great favor.  What they are really doing is replacing more expensive American labor with incredibly cheap labor that the poor people in these nations are far too desperate to refuse to deliver.  Marxist nations have promised to eliminate the exploiter but in reality have only replaced individual exploiters with bureaucratic and governmental exploiters that are much more difficult to get rid of.  Take Cuba.  Fifty years later and the Castro’ regime have done nothing to improve the situation of the nation that they took over from Fulgencio Batista.  (Admittedly, like all good Communists, Fidel Castro was much more adept at blaming others for his country’s problems than was his predecessor.)  What about religion?  Well, mobs of one angry religion tend to take it out on another religion that they do not agree with.  In the film, we had Hindus killing Moslems.  Recently, we had Moslems killing over 170 people at the Taj Mahal hotel.  Do we blame the individual gunmen, the religious sects, the governments of Pakistan or India, or the entire world for allowing the city to become such a cesspool for poverty and thus an area easily exploited by terrorists for carefully planned strategic purposes?
In this 120 minute film, Boyle attempts to show at least a couple of characters deserving of admiration and therefore worthy of our efforts to maybe make life better for them.  That the film is a bit too much of a crowd pleaser does not detract from what Boyle attempted to do.  The acting of the three main characters and much of the supporting cast (almost all newcomers or amateurs) is tremendous.  The storytelling would not work if the film was less gruesomely realistic and if it did not bring out the attributes of three such compelling leads.  I would almost rather have Slumdog Millionaire gain attention for not winning any Academy Awards than have it accepted as a mainstream film.  Because if this film does become mainstream it would probably only be because so much of the audience failed to be disturbed and thoughtfully transfigured into something better by watching the movie.
January 5, 2009 
© Robert S. Miller 2009

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