Slumdog survives pre-Oscar backlash to show true underdog spirit

February 24, 2009 at 4:17 pm (Film) (, , , , , )

Following its recent Oscar success, it seems likely that the recent backlash against Danny Boyle’s ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is only going to get worse.

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In an age where any ‘underground’ success, be it in music, television or cinema, is savagely lambasted by cultural commentators and former fans alike, it seems inconceivable that any Oscar winning film can escape being critically savaged over the internet, regardless of its humble origins.

‘Slumdog’ started life as a Film4 production, after the company bought the rights to film Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup’s novel ‘Q&A’. The total cost of making the film was around £15m , relatively cheap for a major film (Oscar rival ‘Batman Begins’ cost around £130m), and received relatively little marketing prior to its release. The film’s success was instead largely based on word of mouth, and positive reviews in the press.

However, as the commercial and critical success of the film took it from underdog to favourite in first the Golden Globes and then the Oscars, the sniping began.

The accusations were varied, and in some cases contradictory. Firstly, some commentators lambasted the film for depicting a typically Western view of Mumbai, (and thus, they allege, India as a whole). They argue that by concentrating on the lives of slum dwellers for the majority of the film, that Danny Boyle is presenting an age-old colonial view of India as a backwards, filthy, corrupt, poverty stricken wasteland.

This assertion would be fair enough if the film depicted something that did not already exist. Having been to the slums of various Indian states, it is clear that the images depicted in ‘Slumdog’, the mountains of litter, the blinded beggars, the police corruption, are an accurate representation of the film’s setting. But it is also worth noting that Boyle has chosen to set his film (or at least its beginning) in these places as part of its narrative.

We do see the other side of India, as a huge, rapidly developing world power in later scenes, but these images (the hive of commerce that is uptown Mumbai, the massively successful film and telecommunications industries) are conveniently left out of negative criticisms of the film. What should be shown instead? Should Boyle ignore the fact that over 80% of Indians live on less than £1.70 a day just because he is a white, British director? Is it then fine for him to shoot scenes of squalor, drug addiction and depression in his native Scotland, just because he was born there?

Having shot the film on location and used street kids who actually lived in the slums of Mumbai for two of the main roles of the film, it seems rather odd to claim that Boyle has presented a view of India that only exists in the eyes of Westerners. Stranger still that some of the same critics are also claiming that using said street kids in the film amounted to exploitation. Several papers, most notably the Telegraph, accused the film’s producers of selling the kids short by paying them “less than many Indian domestic servants.”

The film’s distributor Fox Searchlight were quick to deny any wrongdoing, stating that “For 30 days’ work, the children were paid three times the average local annual adult salary,” as well as funds that would cover “basic living costs, health care, and any other emergencies.” In addition to this, Danny Boyle revealed in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that a trust fund had been set up for the young actors that would pay them additional funds based on how the film performed at the box office. Boyle said ‘’they have to stay in school until they’re 18. When they reach 18, and if they’ve passed all their exams, a quite substantial sum of money will be released to them.”

While the debate over how whether the kids should be paid wages comparable to similar work in their own country or in Hollywood could run and run. However one point to remember is that the producers of the film could not have envisaged that ‘Slumdog’ would have perform as well as it has at the box office, so many of the accusations that the kids were underpaid on the basis of the films surprisingly hefty ticket receipts are largely irrelevant.

One of the strangest rants against the film came from Alice Miles in the Times. Under the headline ‘Shocked by Slumdog’s poverty porn’, Miles labels the film as ‘vile’ and states that it ‘revels in the misery of India’s children. This is absolutely baffling. On one hand Miles appears to find the images in the film so distasteful that she finds it hard to watch them. This is a fair enough response to scenes which show a child’s eyes being burned with hot oil, young children working as prostitutes and Jamal being strung up by his neck and electrocuted while in a police station. These scenes are far from graphic, but could offend some people’s sensibilities, in which case I would advise them to leave the cinema and reflect that the film was not for them.

However Miles states that ‘you want to look away, but you can’t’, implying that her editor has forced her into some kind of ‘Clockwork Orange’ style viewing mechanism wherein she is forced to watched the same ‘scenes of absolute horror’ over and over again until she writes a controversial piece on it.

Alice Miles starts to wonder if working for The Times is really worth it

Alice Miles starts to wonder if working for The Times is really worth it

The biggest problem about this criticism of the film is that it implies that the audience are somehow getting their kicks not from the story, characters, music or cinematography of the film, but by the idea of people being maimed, raped and killed. Either that or Miles is trying to imply that these scenes have been invented in Danny Boyle’s head to spice up the action, that bad things like that just don’t happen in real life.

In reality, of course, some children are disfigured when they are young so that they can make more money begging. Children are sold into prostitution and young men do join gangs and get hold of weapons that are older than they are in an attempt to break out of poverty. The people who watched and enjoyed ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ are not sadists, but can understand the issues that affect some of the poorest people in the world while revelling in the determination and serendipity of the protagonist who works his way out of that life without compromising his own moral code. It is doing the films audience a massive disservice to claim that this approach simplifies or makes light of these issues in the face of Jamal’s triumph.

We leave the cinema knowing that it is fantasy, that the harsh images at the start of the film remain the reality for millions of people in India and all over the world, and they are the images that stick with us.

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