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04.02.09

slumming


I KNEW I WAS A PROVINCIAL in college, when one of the profs in the York film program took my best friend and me aside and asked if we'd show around a couple of new students from India who were coming to York as part of a scholarship program. My friend and I thought it would be exciting to introduce them to our city, which was finally shaking off its well-deserved reputation as the dullest place in the western hemisphere as the go-go economic revival of the '80s was starting to break over it. Fresh out of high school, we were immersing ourselves in the peculiarly urban joys of shopping, eating in restaurants, going to bars and doing our level best to be at home as little as possible.

When Premika and Ali arrived from New Delhi, it didn't take us long to figure out that whatever modest pleasures Toronto had to offer were small beer compared to the overheated bustle of an Indian metropolis with a population seven times our own, in a country with over thirty times as many people. They were obviously used to a level of urban thrills on a magnitude several times our own, and since the relative cleanliness and order were hardly the sort of things wannabe young sophisticates talked up, we ended up being rather sharply humbled tour guides for the couple.

I couldn't help but remember this as I watched Slumdog Millionaire, and realized that as much as I enjoyed the energy and spectacle that director Danny Boyle brought to the film, I found myself unmoved by what I was seeing, quite despite the critical raves I'd read about the film that won eight Oscars this year, including best director and best picture.

Which forced me to go back to those reviews to try to find out just what, particularly, I might have missed, in a story that I found depressing before it left me not disagreeably detached as the credits rolled. With a 94 per cent favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it certainly seemed like I was in a minority compared to other critics, such as Rolling Stone's Peter Travers, who called his feelings for the film "mad love," or Joe Morganstern of the Wall Street Journal, who dubbed it the "world's first globalized masterpiece."

The film begins with Jamal (Dev Patel,) the film's protagonist, being tortured by a beefy goon, intercut with the same young man at the centre of the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, as he's questioned by the show's host (Anil Kapoor,) and it's hard not to miss the hostility of the host toward the young man. While the fat man takes a car battery to Jamal, Kapoor's emcee - apparently a sly satire of Amitabh Bachchan's real-life emceeing of the show - is openly contemptuous of the young contestant, a poor and uneducated teenager who works as a tea-wallah in the offices of a call centre where bright young people from Mumbai and Bangalore pretend to be Dwayne from Markham or Randy from Sioux Falls as they try to figure out why your Dell keeps crashing.

The fat man and his boss, a senior police officer played by Irrfan Khan, are trying to figure out just how Jamal could have gotten so many answers right on the show, and clearly regard him as a criminal fraud - a crime that apparently inspires classic authoritarian brutality in India, especially if you're on the low rungs of the caste ladder. There was no cheating, Jamal sullenly insists - he just knows the answers, and so the movie flashes back to Jamal as a boy, playing cricket on the runway of the airport next to the teeming slum where he lives with his mother and brother.

Boyle does his best to rub our noses in the squalor of Jamal's home, from the filth - a scene is set in a row of outhouses perched over the river used as a running latrine - to the casual bruality offset by the explosions of violence, such as the one where a mob of Hindus attack the slum's Muslim inhabitants, killing Jamal's mother and making orphans of him and his brother, Salim. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times called the film a "gaudy, gorgeous rush of color, sound and motion," and "a modern fairy tale about a pauper angling to become a prince, this sensory blowout largely takes place amid the squalor of Mumbai ... where lost children and dogs sift through trash so fetid you swear you can smell the discarded mango as well as its peel, or could if the film weren’t already hurtling through another picturesque gutter."

Maybe it's just me, but it's hard to find a gutter picturesque at the best of times, and Dargis' description of Mumbai's slums - "gaudy, gorgeous rush ... vast, vibrant, sun-soaked, jampacked ... a kaliedescopic city of flimsy shacks and struggling humanity" - is both overused descriptive rhetoric, and suggestive of far too many layers of myth and stylization accreting over the reality, to which Boyle has merely added one more coat.



Jamal and Salim make themselves a trio by letting Latika, a little girl also orphaned by the mob, become their third Musketeer as they scrabble for survival, ending up in the grip of a vicious pimp who blinds children to make them better beggars - an episode that many reviewers, including Roger Ebert and David Edelstein of New York magazine, predictably describe as Dickensian. When Latika gets left behind after they escape, Jamal vows to find her again, and the film reveals its plot at last, but not before the boys scrounge, cheat and steal their way across India, the highlight of which is a stint at the Taj Mahal, stealing tourists' shoes and giving them comically fraudulent guided tours.

The confused and contradictory way we relate to the third world is highlighted in a scene where an American tourist couple's car is stripped clean by a gang of urchins while Jamal and Salim take them on a tour, which prompts a policeman to casually put the boot to Jamal in front of the horrified tourists. When they intervene, putting themselves between the boy and the police and even giving him money in an attempt to deal with the situation "the American way," they're supposed to look like callow idiots, but what, precisely, is so comic about finding a cop kicking a child deplorable? The scene presents the strange spectacle of white liberals - you have to assume that's the intended audience Hollywood markets itself to first and foremost with a film like Slumdog Millionaire - being encouraged to laugh at what, on balance, is probably the last sound instinct they have.

Ebert spends nearly half of his review reviewing his own knowledge of India, or rather the "two Indias" he's seen, one of them fostering a booming middle class and cities full of "Mercedes-Benzes and Audis. Traffic like Demo Derby. Luxury condos. Exploding education. A booming computer segment. A fountain of medical professionals. Some of the most exciting modern English literature. A Bollywood to rival Hollywood," contrasted with "people living in the streets. A woman crawling from a cardboard box. Men bathing at a fire hydrant. Men relieving themselves by the roadside."

He also makes commits a classic and inevitable Ebert misremembering, and describes that the film's flashbacks are cued by Jamal's explanations of how he had the answers to all the questions on the show, which are "beaten out of him by the show's security staff." The film makes it clear that the fat sergeant and the detective torturing Jamal are regular police, and while police brutality in India is a sad truth, it's interesting that Ebert is willing to accept that torture is de rigeur for TV station rent-a-cops. While Ebert was likely distracted during the screening by summoning his many memories of India, the slip is telling - an example of the "soft bigotry of low expectations" that holds the disadvantaged, non-white part of the world to lower standards, and equates a world-weary shrug with an excuse.

Making their way back to Mumbai, Jamal and Salim finally find Latika again, now a pretty young girl being groomed by the pimp as a virginal prize to go to the highest bidder. They attempt another escape, which seems foiled until Salim unexpectedly pulls a gun and executes the pimp in cold blood, his first serious act on the way to moving from small time criminal to gangster. Relishing his newfound power, he exercises his privilege as older son and hero and kicks Jamal out of the room in the abandoned luxury hotel where they've holed up, clearly intending to claim Latika as his spoils, a final rift that sends Jamal out on his own for several more years, still pining for Latika when he's inspired to go on national television to make his fortune and get the attention of his love, now played by Freida Pinto as mistress to Salim's gangster boss.



In the New York Observer, Andrew Sarris praises Boyle's talent as a director, but worries that "much of the film is so overwhelming as sheer mass spectacle that it serves as a sobering view of an overpopulated part of the world that defies any judgmental analysis." India might be overpopulated, but I fail to see how what goes on there is somehow exempt from the judgment of a rational, enlightened person concerned with basic humanity. Police brutality, mob violence, child labour, brutal and systemic tolerance of poverty - real poverty, and not the 5000 calorie version we see here - is criminal and awful, and we should be able to judge a society that's defined by it, and allow ourselves to respect our discomfort when it's used as colourful scene-setting, instead of downgrading it to the status of the merely quaint by aestheticizing it with words like "gaudy" and "sensory overload."

What I can't help but find interesting is the admission by several veteran critics that, even at this point their careers, they're still capable of being overwhelmed by movie spectacle, to the point where they're unable to formulate a critique that goes much beyond "wow." Even more, there's the frequent celebration of the film's very traditional structure underneath Boyle's very vigorous and modern visuals, which is described variously as a "fairy tale," "floridly corny and movie-ish," or "the best old-fashioned audience picture of the year."

Anthony Lane, writing one of the few mostly negative reviews of the film in The New Yorker, points out that "there are no surprises in this movie, and most people will be able to predict, within the first ten minutes, roughly how the last ten will pan out." Even then, he refuses to diagnose this as a serious flaw, in the context of what audiences are looking for, now as ever. "After all, to make an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser is no mean task, requiring both folly and verve; and right now, I suspect, the crowd is ready to be pleased."

What's obvious is that, more than the audience - that vast, familiar abstraction out there, as critics so often describe it - the critics seem desperate to be pleased, with an eagerness that almost seems unseemly.



A critic's job is a strange one. People will say that it must be nice to sit around and watch movies, read books or listen to music all day, but they're ignoring the fact that you don't have much choice about what you're watching/reading/listening to, and besides, there's no quicker way to leach the joy out of something you love than by turning it from an entertainment into an obligation. Given that the longtime consensus on great art is that it has to be serious, rigorous, or even harrowing, a lot of your time as a movie critic especially is spent with films that try to be clever at the very least, or offensive and assaultive at the most.

Several years spent as the seconding critic at the paper where I worked until recently relegated me to the dour foreign and Canadian films that our regular critic avoided while reserving the big mainstream and prestige titles that most people would watch - and read about - for himself. The result was a week of mornings every month spent in a dark room witnessing murder, rape, family dysfunction, bigotry, violence and brutality on the personal and state levels. It was a trying time, and it made me a sucker for MGM musicals.

I'm a big fan of Danny Boyle. While heroin was never my drug of choice, Trainspotting did a marvellous job of evoking those short but vivid years I spent getting out of my head, with an unapologetic vivacity that reminds me how hard it'll be to give my children a warning talk about drug use, every word filled with the fear that they'll ask something like "Dad, but what if taking drugs is fun?" Even better was Millions, his little-seen children's film that fills every grass blade and beam of sunlight in the mundane world with a suggestion of the sacred. And while Slumdog Millionaire is no less visually brilliant than his previous work - he truly understands that film is a seen, not a heard, medium - I can't help but suspect that it'll be regarded as a quaint, perhaps even embarassing curiosity years from now, when the globalized cinema Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal imagines is a reality.

Hopefully we'll have overcome our assumption that Third World poverty is colourful and lively by nature, as a bulwark against the chance that we might have to condemn its sorrowful toll and the governments who perpetuate it as deplorable, and not just some curious crop of cultural side-effects.

As for my friends Ali and Premika, they split up rather acrimoniously several years later, but they stayed in Canada, which reflects well, I think, on even the most second-rate and provincial of places.


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© 2009 rick mcginnis all rights reserved

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i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters. i've worked as a photographer, journalist and, recently, tv columnist. currently a member of the growing workforce awaiting new employment opportunities. church-going catholic.

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