Slumdog Millionaire is, as J.M. Tyree so effectively put it, a film that fits into that genre all its own, “the Best Picture Picture.” Tyree (in a recent issue of Film Quarterly) and Salman Rushdie (in his infamous lecture at Emory University) have been some of the most thoughtful and articulate opponents of this movie, which did not deserve the credit it received and should rather be condemned for fooling masses of Westerners into feeling good about themselves and the movie itself while functioning as little more than a high-budget exploitation film. Danny Boyle is apparently doing to movies what Fox TV started doing a number of years ago to sports: kicking it up a notch through superficial glitz. Baseball isn’t exciting enough, so stick a microphone in each of the bases for a more explosive sound at each slide. Can’t see the hockey puck on TV? We’ll make it glow orange. Et cetera. Apparently abject poverty also isn’t interesting enough, so Boyle enlists the kinds of effects that make Jerry Bruckheimer (through the CSI franchises) his money. This MTV music video-style of cinematography makes the audience feel like they’re watching something very “cool,” making them feel cool, cultured, and social-justice-minded for watching it.
Tyree makes the case that Slumdog “wants to have it both ways by allowing images of actual horror to seep into a Bollywood-like dream and then letting us off the hook by suggesting not only that true love conquers all, but also that personal decency might well result in a multimillion-dollar payday… There is a contradiction between what the film tells us about how the universe operates and what it shows us about abject poverty.” Rushdie, in a similar vein, states that the film “piles impossibility upon impossibility.” He adds, “This is a patently ridiculous conceit, the kind of fantasy writing that gives fantasy writing a bad name.” We who embrace these opinions are bound to make enemies, but it’s remarkable that most moviegoers have failed to realize that images of real poverty are being used for what amounts to an attempt at a fairy tale. The viewer is supposed to watch practices take place which apparently really do take place in India, be disgusted by them, realize that something in that part of the world is very wrong, then draw the conclusion by the end of the film that it’s really all worth it for the sake of the main characters being in love. The protagonists are one-dimensional characters of the most boring kind, to say nothing of the antagonists. Character development is non-existent. Subtlety was gouged out along with the boy’s eyeball early in the film. Good characters are not only good, they’re completely innocent; they’re even seemingly unaware when they’re completely covered in poo. Bad characters are pure evil with not a hope of redemption or realistic change, other than the obligatory exception or two inserted into the narrative like props.
Tyree does well to acknowledge that Wes Anderson’s film The Darjeeling Limited, though also made by an American in India, is a different thing altogether. It conceals the side of India that Danny Boyle wants to desperately to represent, and it is self-proclaimedly made from the point of view of traveling Americans. There is no pretense in that film implying that we’re experiencing India as it actually is. The tourists in Darjeeling are at least as touristy as the majority of spectators would be. Boyle, on the other hand, after trying his hand at films in a variety of genres, flies to India from his home in Britain with the gall to think he can show the rest of the world “India.” Worse, he borrows/steals images of real horror in India for the purpose of entertaining Westerners. The problems going on in India aren’t going to go away or be affected by a movie like this. This is the cinematic equivalent of celebrities throwing cash at charities or adopting African babies with People magazine in tow. Further reading in Peter Brooks’ The Melodramatic Imagination confirms that the narrative and cinematic devices being employed in Slumdog shamelessly adhere to conventional tropes of melodrama, the sort of literature and art designed not to elicit thoughts or ideas but feelings and emotions. It is effects-laden and effects-driven. This sort of thing is anything but uncommon in cinema and literature these days, but by using real images of children in poverty and being tortured, Slumdog takes itself to a different level and provides all the necessary tools for its own deconstruction.