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.

Gadling Take FIVE: Week of January 31-February 6

Despite all the noise of drunk pilots, celebrities, and credit card scams that can pepper the travel scene, there are gems of places not to be missed and stories worth hearing again. Perhaps you’ve read that our dear Matthew Firestone who has graced us with his Big in Japan series for more than a year is off to Africa. No new entries for Big In Japan, but you can keep reading previous posts.

If you haven’t checked out Gadling’s current series, Bowermaster’s Antarctica,do. The photos of the penguins in the gallery are stunning. Each time I read Jon’s work, I’m reminded of the Danish novel, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. The setting is not the same–the novel is set in Greenland, but both are versions of a journey into a world of snow, ice, and mystery.

This month, we’re also continuing with our theme of budget travel. Each day at 11:30 am, there will be a new post on how or where to travel without spending a lot of money.

Here are five other offerings to give you some travel inspiration.

  • Kraig offered up the Guangxi Autonomous Region in Southeast China as a travel destination. As he describes in China’s Hidden Outdoor Wonderland, this is a place to head to for an off the beaten track experience that will not disappoint.
  • In his post Destination on the Edge: Seal training , Tom gives the run-down on how you can get a military training experience without joining the military. For anyone thinking about joining the military, this might not be a bad idea. From his description, being in shape sounds like a must.
  • With movie award season here, check out Jeremy’s post Undiscovered New York: A movie lover’s guide to New York. There are tips for how to find out where films were shot, as well as, the hot spots for movie-watching. The guy knows what he’s talking about.
  • Mike’s post The most disappointing tourist attractions has gathered many hits this week. Read the comment section to find out which places others have loved or hated. I agree with Mike’s take on the Taj Mahal. Simply glorious. Another you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it attraction, for me, is the Grand Canyon.
  • When I read Grant’s post Smithsonian opens Forensic Files of the 17th Century, I thought, that’s an exhibit to see. As he points out the exhibit will be on display for two years, but time has a way of passing fast, so put this one on your things to do list.

And because it’s Bob Marley’s birthday, and I really want you to go into this weekend feeling swell, check out this post. The video will make your heart sing. At least it did mine and Karen’s. Karen, by the way has wowed me each week with photography tips that make me think I ought to carry my camera around more.

The world’s most disappointing tourist attractions

The Taj Mahal. La Sagrada Familia. The Grand Canyon. These are places that give visitors goose bumps and must be seen in person. The kinds of places that photographs just can’t do justice. I know that when I arrived at the Taj Mahal my jaw dropped. I was in awe. But not all travel destinations live up to the hype. All to often, you arrive at your prized spot only to snap a perfunctory photo and get back into your rental car feeling disenchanted and cheated. The Sydney Morning Herald did us a solid and put together their list of the world’s most disappointing tourist attractions.

Included on the list are Buckingham Palace (“It’s just a big grey building.”), the Spanish Steps in Rome (“It’s hard to get excited about a flight of stairs…”) and New York’s Times Square (“And what’s there to look at once you arrive? Billboards?”).

I missed the Spanish Steps when I was in Rome because I decided to take a nap instead of joining my friends on that walk. Their reaction when they returned to our apartment? Some shrugged shoulders and a lot of “meh.” And living in New York, I can tell you that Times Square is nothing more than one of Dante’s outer circles of hell, filled with sidewalk hustlers peddling schlock and not much else.

Take a look at their list and let us know what you think. Ever been underwhelmed by a famous landmark? What places have lived up to your high expectations? Drop us a line in the comments.

Click the pictures to learn about some unusual amusement parks, from R-Rated “Love Land,” to a park with a ride called “Dog Fart Switchback.”

Alternatively, click the images to learn about the most unusual museums in the world — covering topics from funeral customs, to penises, to stripping.

Photo of the Day (11/10/07)

Even though it’s nearly impossible to take a bad photo of the Taj Mahal in Agra, India, I’d still like to congratulate Gadling reader pixelskew for snapping this amazing shot. It’s so perfectly symmetrical, the only way you can tell it’s not just half of an image doubled over is by looking at the crowd of people at the base of the mausoleum. Just as impressive is the sky, which gradually changes from blue to pink to white to green. Magnificent. Pixelskew also gets bonus points because I was there not even a week after this picture was taken, back in December of 2006.

If you’d like to contribute a Photo of the Day shot for consideration, please visit our Gadling Flickr pool and upload your favorites.

Taj Mahal Closed to Tourists

When I was in India, the only time I ever felt even a little bit unsafe was in Agra, on our way to see the Taj Mahal. We had just heard on the news that morning that Saddam Hussein had been hung, and the citizens of Agra, many of whom are Muslim, were reacting to the news as we pulled into town.

“What’s going on over there there?” I asked our local fixer, pointing at a large gathering of people. “Some sort of festival?”

The scene was chaotic, but having been in India for a few weeks at this point, I knew that “chaotic” was a daily thing, and rarely a sign of danger. “They are burning an effigy of Mr. Bush,” he replied nonchalantly, as if burning an effigy of the President of the United States was a regular thing in Agra. Maybe it was. Even then — being the only white person within rock-throwing distance — I felt relatively little danger. We drove on and watched the sun set behind the Taj Mahal.

By the next day we were out of Agra and onto Jaipur, but the news that night told me that a small-scale riot had broken out in Agra and a tourist van had been attacked. I gasped when they showed the footage, because the van on the television looked exactly like ours, but this one had shattered windows and screaming tourists fleeing from it.

It came with little surprise today that I read the Taj Mahal has been closed to tourists. Apparently four members of the Indian Muslim community were hit by a lorry (large truck) after returning from “Shab-e-Barat or the ‘night of forgiveness or atonement,’ when Muslims pray for the dead,” and an angry crowd responded, according to Reuters. No word on how long it will be closed, but a curfew is in effect for many parts of the city.

(Thanks, Scott!)