Slumdog Millionaire: Not too crazy about it

Spoiler alert. Oscar season is here. I’ve seen all the movies in the major categories and some. At the risk of sounding crabby and uncool–not with it, I wasn’t enamored with Slumdog Millionaire. Yes, yes, yes, I know the movie is considered mighty fine, and a shoo in to bring home Oscar on Sunday, but at times when asked what I thought about it, I’ve declared, “I hated it.”

That’s not true. I didn’t hate, it but I’m not fond of it either. Of the movies nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, I liked it the least. Somewhere during the middle of the movie, about the time the two brothers were tossed off the train, I had an unsettled feeling, a bit of unease–the feeling that I was being manipulated to have certain ideas about India, poverty, and what might make it feel better. It felt exploitative in a Hollywood, feel good kind of way.

I have company. In a conversation with former Peace Corps volunteers, we tried to pinpoint what bothered us the most about the film. We didn’t come up with anything specific, but it has something to do with our own experiences of living in the midst of poverty, and how the movie piled on bad news in huge helpings with only one solution to address the mess–win gobs of money and get the girl. .

It’s not that there aren’t kids who get maimed to make them better beggars. There are–some. I’d say not many. It’s not that people haven’t been killed in India because of unrest between the Muslims and the Hindus (or Christians for that matter). Some have been. It’s not that there isn’t organized crime in India. There is. And, it’s not that the police wouldn’t torture a person in India. Some do. Throw in the prostitution angle and the movie covers it all. Not the bride burning, though. That wasn’t included–it must have been left off the laundry list of bad things to include in the repertoire of really, really bad things that happen to people in India. (I’d venture to say, there are equally bad things that might happen anywhere, but India is in these days, particularly since any one who needs assistance over the phone is likely to be talking to someone in India.)

So, here we have a movie that piles on all the worst India offers on it’s worst days and shows seemingly endless scenes of torture and child endangerment. But, it’s a feel good movie because at the end, the bad guys are dead, the police turn nice, the talk show host has a change of heart, and one of the only two positive characters in the storyline wins amounts of money that most of us will never see. PLUS, he gets the girl–the girl being the only other character that audience members are coached into caring about.

The way I see it, Slumdog Millionaire took the darker side of India and turned it into a movie that those of us who will plop down money on movie tickets feel good about seeing. At the end of the movie, we feel good because love persevered. Too bad about the blind kid, though–and the brother gone bad did make a bold statement about getting money through organized crime when he arranged himself in a bathtub filled with crisp bills knowing he’d be gunned down in a blood battle.

If I hadn’t lived in India or The Gambia, I might have liked Slumdog Millionaire better. But I feel like it took an outsiders view under the guise of capturing reality. Some might say that the movie showed what poverty is like. Really? Only the beginning scenes showed the closeness and organization that occurs every day in a jugghi colony –the version of poverty I’ve seen–the kind not jazzed up by fantastical events. In my mind, poverty was not the biggest reason the three kids were in jeopardy. Religious unrest and hatred was. That was barely addressed in the movie and was used merely as a vehicle to kill off Mom so the rest of the story could occur.

There were two scenes, though, that felt like perfect pitch. One was at the Taj Mahal. Although it was a volume turned up version, the interaction between westerners who feel guilty about being tourists, and the people who make money off that guilt was fairly accurate in its intention. Still, it was a parody of American tourists. Are we that hapless and clueless? My experience of the Taj Mahal is that, although you might be swarmed by people trying to sell you post cards as you beeline from your vehicle to inside the Taj Mahal complex, in general, you’re not going to be ripped off if you look for official tour guides. The over the top part was the car being stripped. Could it happen? Sure, I suppose. I never heard about it happening though.

The other scene was when the two brothers were being chased by the police when they were young. This was perhaps my favorite scene. What I liked about it was it captured the essence of rambunctious boys and authorities who try to keep them in line. My impression is that this is a cat and mouse game that happens daily with no one getting hurt.

When I saw Slumdog Millionaire, it felt like dining at a huge buffet with every kind of food imaginable, but after the experience, I wasn’t sure exactly what I ate.

Here’s what I think would make for a better movie. Show kids from a jugghi colony that have been cast in a blockbuster movie and what it’s like for them to have this experience, particularly once the cameras have stopped rolling. From what I’ve heard and read, a trust fund has been set up for the children who were cast as the childhood versions of the grown up characters. The kids have also been enrolled in school, but in general, their lives are the same. Tinseltown didn’t change them much. However, they are going to attend the Oscar award ceremony. (See photo of Rubino Ali, the young girl who played Latika in her house in India.) That might change them a bit.

Here’s what I’m wondering. If the kids who are living in poverty are having valuable lives with meaning and depth–which I think they are, and obviously Danny Boyle thought so too since he left the children where he found them, then why is there the notion that in order to solve life’s problems, we need to be millionaires? As much as we were told that the main character didn’t care about the money, then why did he need to win it in the end?

Of course, I was happy he won it. It’s Hollywood. And the dance scene while the credits rolled was excellent.