That’s precisely what a number of folks are attempting to ascertain in light of the accolades this British/US film (shot in the underbelly of India) is receiving. It very well might take the grand prize at this year’s Academy Award ceremony, although the uproar from Indian intelligentsia (whose criticisms of the film range from “it’s poverty porn” to “it’s too fantastical to be taken seriously”) has been notable. Director Danny Boyle has also come under scrutiny due to the meager compensation his crew offered to the Mumbai waif actors — handpicked from genuine slums and dramatically trained to emote with a a deftly composed mixture of psychological realism and more traditional child-like wide-eyed wonder (their performances were, for me, the highlight of the film). Some have also made the argument that as a western movie (albeit one strongly influenced by eastern traditions, especially Bollywood) it lapses into global condescension and Hollywood cliché far too often.
From a theoretical vantage point it’s hard for a US citizen like me who’s never been anywhere aside from Latin America to argue or even attempt to revise the Indian perspectives, although both sides of the debate have voiced cogent readings. But it’s within the narrative itself — and not the social aura surrounding it, or even any events that may have occurred during the production that may implication institutional third-world exploitation — that I think we find the most troubling issues, and this wouldn’t change (at least not for me) even if the film had been made by a completely Indian cast and crew and forged in the vulcan smithery of Bollywood itself (I admittedly haven’t read the source material, though I’d like to, and I don’t know how many of these issues exist in the original text, entitled Q & A).
The “slumming,” if we can call it that, may or may not border on exploitative depending on your view. One could argue that films are nearly always exploitative in their representation, so I tire of these simplistic arguments. But within Slumdog Millionaire‘s primary storytelling gimmick the hardships of poverty are what redeem the protagonist and allow him to obtain his fortune (quite literally, due to the random queries he’s asked on the quiz show). Worse, because he is a “slumdog” (western nomenclature not in the original text), all of Mumbai watches on as he’s perched in the inquisition throne, projecting their hopes of success and deliverance onto him. The film thusly becomes a social mobility parable where figurative and abstract “riches” (bits of arbitrary information, sheer honesty, compassion, courageousness) undergo a kind of transubstantiation and produce or even become literal riches. But the symbolism sours when, at the film’s end, the poor remain poor. The rich remain rich. The Muslim remain Muslim and the Hindu remain Hindu, and they remain at each other’s throats. The brutal caste system remains. The protagonist’s trajectory has not been heroic or socially relevant: he is a contrivance, and the film’s sidesteps the questionable economic overtones in the film’s finale by, of course, centering on the love story. Thus, we have a social mobility parable with no moral — the “slumdog” aspects are incidental, only to widen the divide between the main character and his love (imagine what kind of an exercise WALL-E would have become if the ending had excised all references to the ecological subtext and merely featured Wall-e and Eve’s reconciliation. Director Andrew Stanton has attempted to gloss over his film’s environmentalism in interviews, but the artwork itself thankfully tells a very different and much more complexly rewarding story).
I’m reminded a bit in my explanation above by Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, a similar yarn albeit with far more advanced satire. The argument of that book, aside from the very obvious if farcical call for empathy that it turns into with children’s editions, at a basic level was speaking to the universality of human nature and the odd but unalterably unfair fashion in which we are “born into” class systems by luck, randomness, or cosmic crap-shooting (studies have shown that socio-economic background is the single most crucial factor in deciding a child’s career path, at least here in the states). But Slumdog‘s protagonist is a pauper who becomes a prince sans a ready-to-swap double — and his climb is because of his very pauperism, rather than because of his superior humanism or intelligence (his knowledge of the quiz answers are entirely incidental, albeit branded on the brain). This is not a novel concept but the film seems to be convinced that this alone is heroic, when the protagonist’s wealth in the end helps no one aside from himself and his hard-won bride (is this different in the novel?). This is where the exploitation becomes a bit much to bear — we’ve watched the very real suffering of children and adolescents so that they can flaccidly dance us through the credits. There’s an uncomfortable disconnect between the film’s verisimilitude, it’s Hollywood structure, and it’s vapid message.
I would be willing to accept that perhaps some of my opinion is due to my ignorance of Indian culture, although judging from the criticism the film has endured in that country it’s doubtful. As an east-west global united art-front, Slumdog Millionaire is a bit of a “Shamdog Millionaire”.