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Slumdog Millionaire

So I was surprised that Slumdog Millionaire won so many Academy Awards. I thought the film was good, but not a sweep-the-awards type of picture. Why not? It’s a question I’ve been pondering for a while. In the end, I felt that the romantic fantasy element of the film didn’t quite settle comfortably with the social realist element. We know, of course, that the story is a fantasy: the main character’s arc is not representative of the majority of slum-dwellers lives. And to maintain such a fantasy usually requires the elision of significant elements of ‘reality’ and ‘realism’. In Slumdog Millionaire this fundamentally works against the social realist implicit critique of the slums in India. It just can’t work as an organic unity. What’s more, I find the combination of the two to be politically unsatisfying, for if we go for the straight fantasy, then I’m not thinking ‘this is possible; this is a serious critique’, as I would if it was a straight social realist piece (think of the works of Ken Loach, for example). The combination of the two in Slumdog Millionaire confuses this, and this means that the film tends toward a ‘cinema of consolation': you leave the cinema feeling better about everything, about the slums and poverty because, well, everything turned out alright in the end. I liked the film – really I did. But I didn’t think it was that serious, in the end. And certainly not sweep-the-awards film it has become.

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Rjurik Davidson is a writer, editor and speaker. Rjurik’s novel, The Stars Askew was released in 2016. Rjurik is a former associate editor of Overland magazine. He can be found at rjurik.com and tweets as @rjurikdavidson.

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  1. I agree with what you say – but do think the film needs to be critiqued in the context of the Bollywood genre that Boyle was trying to emulate which often has that strange tension (though Boyle pushed the social-realist angle, possibly to the point of departing from the genre, as you pick up on). And don’t you think it won awards BECAUSE it wasn’t serious in the end? The discussion that’s being had that I find more meaningful is the ethics of how well Boyle did (or did not) treat his slum-dwelling child stars. There seems to be alot of contradictory stories around as to how well they were paid and the ongoing support being given (or not) to help these kids get out of the slums in the way that the characters they play manage to.

  2. Since I have no life, I haven’t seen the film.
    But there’s an interesting, and quite different, critique here.

    http://www.counterpunch.org/sengupta02202009.html

    The real problem with Slumdog, however, is not its shallow portrayal of poverty, but its minimizing of the capabilities and even basic humanity of those it claims to speak for.

    It is no secret that Slumdog is meant to reflect life in Dharavi, the vast sprawl of slums at the heart of Mumbai. The film depicts Dharavi as a feral wasteland, with little evidence of order, community or compassion. Other than the children, the no-one is even remotely well-intentioned. Hustlers and petty warlords run amok, and even Jamal’s schoolteacher is inexplicably callous. This is a place of sheer evil and decay.

    But nothing is further from the truth. Dharavi teems with dynamism, and is a hub of small-scale industries, whose estimated annual turnover is between US$50 to $100 million. Nor is Dharavi bereft of governing structures and productive social relations. Residents have built strong collaborative networks, often across potentially volatile lines of caste and religion. Many cooperative societies work together with NGOs to provide residents with essential services such as basic healthcare, schooling and waste disposal, often compensating for the formal government’s woeful inadequacy in meeting their needs. Although these under-resourced organizations have touched only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, their efforts must be acknowledged, along with the fact that slum-dwellers, despite their grinding poverty, have lives of value and dignity, and a resourcefulness that stretches far beyond the haphazard, individualistic survival-of-the-fittest sort shown in Slumdog.

    In the end, Slumdog presents a profoundly dehumanizing view of the poor, with all its troubling political implications. Since there are no internal resources, and none capable of constructive voice or action, all “solutions” must arrive externally.

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