Slumdog Millionaire

slumdog millionaire

I just saw Slumdog Millionaire last night. You would have to be an idiot to argue that this movie is not amazing. It is. I loved it. But watching the credits, I had some questions. Why were the producer (Christian Colson), director (Danny Boyle) and screenwriter (Simon Beaufoy) all white Westerners for a movie based on an Indian novel, set in India, and acted by an all-Indian cast?

As in, why are Westerners controlling how Indians (actors and writers) represent themselves to the West and to themselves (this film is set to be released in India in January)? Hmm, why is the term “Orientalism” leaping to mind?

I also have some questions about the NYT article Extreme Mumbai, Without Bollywood’s Filtered Lens by Somini Sengupta. I mean why don’t we start with the title of this article, with its implicit suggestion that the English Danny Boyle can somehow represent India more authentically than it represents itself in its own film industry? What the hell is that?

The review isn’t completely wretched, but it is still filled with a little of the exoticism that often accompanies the gaze of Western countries towards the East. (Yes, I am aware that Sengupta is Indian, but she has been criticized for her overly Westernized viewpoints before.) Take her ending words here:

Whatever you call it, Mumbai or Bombay is not a city that can be manufactured on a set, Mr. Boyle maintained. It is not distinguished by its architecture, but by its atmosphere, its noise. “Slumdog Millionaire” captures all of that, though because it is a movie, it misses one thing that truly distinguishes Mumbai, the way it smells: part drying fish, part human waste.

Well it may be true that many parts of Mumbai smell like human waste, Jesus Christ, hasn’t it been a common meme in the West for centuries now to obsess over the strange smells of “the Orient”?

Just saying.

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6 thoughts on “Slumdog Millionaire

  1. i have asked myself the same question…i also loved the movie, and felt the same frustration. i also wondered if i couldn’t just appreciate a good film? and i wondered if the press (such as sengupta’s article) is what made me mad, more than anything else? i often appreciate art from artists i don’t love. one example is jhumpa lahiri’s novels. i enjoy her writing and can relate to it; though i wish that he had a stronger sense of political responsibility. so, do i just appreciate her writing or do i hate on her and not read her books?

  2. Hey Czech,

    As you know, I love discussing Indian cinema and cinematic portrayals of India. In this case, I think you might be asking the wrong questions:

    “Why are Westerners controlling how Indians (actors and writers) represent themselves…”

    The answer is: they aren’t. There may have been a tiny handful of well-publicized Western films about India(ns), but by and large Indians have one of the very [very, very] few national cinemas that is successful outside of imported US films. No country makes more movies or sees more movies than India (even the per capita kicks the US’s ass), and only the US makes as much profit from cinema. Indian films are almost exclusively by Indian-born filmmakers, more so than the US or Britain. Many prominant films about India made in the West are also by Indians (including two quite successful female directors: Gurinder Chadha and Mira Nair).

    The screenwriter, Beaufoy, wrote the script because he loved the book and wanted to see it turned into a film. Boyle was talked into it by Beaufoy after initially rejecting the idea. No conspiracy to steal Indian culture as far as I’m concerned.

    As for the NYT article, it is actually quite true that almost all Bollywood (we aren’t talking “India” here) features are shot on sets. At one time, so were 99% of American films, but this actually got too expensive in the 1950’s).

    The cliche about Bollywood commercial cinema is that they are all long, shot-on-set musicals that are set in the past and which don’t deal with controversial (often due to censorship) or unpleasant issues. By and large, that’s just statistical fact and, if ticket sales and periodicals like India Times are any judge, most Indians are quite happy with that aspect of their culture.

    India does have a well-regarded art cinema pedigree as well, including a substantial role in the film festival circuit, but most of these films are government subsidized. Popular audiences, even in a country as populous as India, often don’t make these films financially viable. As with the New German Cinema of 70’s and 80’s, more foreigners see these films than domestic viewers. Some of the blame likely falls on the marketers and producers in India, but I would hazard a guess that Indian culture views cinema as “entertainment” to a greater degree than even most Americans.

    So Boyle’s “representing of India to the West” has to be put in this context. Why is it that Britain, which only makes less than 5% as many films as India, could even be accused of cultural hegemony? Well, part of it is their colonization history, for sure, but I think modern distribution systems are a more proximal cause. Indian commercial cinema is very rarely screened in the US. Producers have tried, but there is very little money in it. Audience expectations are very different, a topic in and of itself.

    Personally, I’ve also been disappointed with almost every Indian DVD I’ve purchased or rented. Indian-distributed DVDs for the US market (and ones I’ve imported) are often poorly subtitles and abysmally transferred. Unskippable previews (often 5-20 movies long) play before the menu is even displayed (every time you return to the menu!).

    One film I watched recently, “Pakeezah,” a major critical and commercial success from the 1970’s, is only available in the US from one Indian distributer and it is clearly copied from a television archive copy (or possibly even a broadcast!) complete with the channel watermark. Collectors very rarely go near this type of thing, choking off the cineclub backdoor that often brings attention to overlooked international hits.

    “The Apu Trilogy,” perhaps the best known Indian films amongst Western viewers, isn’t even available in the US on DVD. Expensive out-of-print UK copies and low-contrast, poorly-done South Korean imports and low-contrast 3rd generation VHSes, are the only real solutions, and those have to be sought out. Keep in mind, we are talking about THE HIGHEST RATED Indian film amongst internation critics (I’m using TSPDT to back that claim) and it is hard to find with a swollen wallet. Given the difficultly, the average American just isn’t going to come closer than “Bride and Predjudice.”

    Recent commercial Indian films are widely avaiable on the bootleg circuit both in the US and in India. India is second only to China in terms of internal illegal DVD traffic and is 4th when it comes exporting DVDs without copyright compensation. This includes a great deal of US films, too. To be honest, I think a lot of cinephiles and film collectors like me are scared away by all the bootlegging and simply cross their fingers hoping for a prestige US distributer will make a high-grade legit copy available one day.

    It is interesting to note that other countries, even though fractional in size, have managed to have much larger international cinematic mindshares: Taiwan, Hong Kong, Denmark, Poland, Brazil, Iran, Senegal, etc. Usually this is due to successful art films (usually backed by an auteur vangard), since the langauge barrier has historically blocked popular cinema from crossing over (or so conventional wisdom goes). I remember that in 2006 when I was taking an East Asian Cinema class, I discovered that Hollywood remade 17 Korean films that year alone (THAT I KNEW OF!), because the films had proven successful domestically but American test audiences wouldn’t stomach the subtitles and culture displacement.

    So here are some questions I would ask:
    1) Why do some countries manage to reach a global audience with their cinema while others don’t? How do niche markets evolve?
    2) Why is popular taste, EVERYWHERE, so friggin’ bad?
    3) Why won’t distributers, producers and marketers take a risk on foreign films?
    4) Why is “Slumdog Millionaire” sure to be a huge success in the West while “Vanaja” will piddle around on the festival circuit a few more months and then quietly disappear even with Ebert calling it one of the 5 best films of last year? I actually think Slumdog Millionaire is substantially better. Why do I feel that way?

    One might also contemplate the role of censorship in India, the relatively cheaper cost of tickets and the complications of their history. But I’m tired now…

  3. I actually do give Boyle a lot of credit for choosing to shoot in Mumbai and using 30% Hindi dialog (he lied to his producer and said that it was only 10% to get it approved).

    I remember Danish director Lars von Trier challenging Jorgen Leth to shoot a short film in the hardest location feasible (memorably documented in Five Obstructions). Leth chose the red light district of Bombay, where he’d almost been killed as a child. Having seen the result, I can see how crowd-control would make it extremely impractical for India to do commercial shooting in the streets. If nothing else, consider the difficulties of getting clean audio. Yet another reason why Bollywood films are usually done on sound stages.

  4. I thought you might get a kick out of this description from the back of the “Mother India” DVD distributed by Eros International. Eros is Indian-owned, but is truly a global company. This blurb, however, simply had to have been written by a Western localizer.

    “From INDIA, the cradle of the gods, comes this epic drama of an Indian mother, the nucleus round which revolves the tradition and culture of the ages in this ancient land.

    In India, every woman is an integral part of a man. With marriage she merges her individuality into her husband’s and both together form a single entity in society. One without the other is but half of the story of an eternal harmony going beyond a single birth and through seven births as the Indian scriptures say. A woman’s marriage is thus an eternal spiritual bond and in her absolute dedication to her husband her single prayer is to die in the presences of her husband and be carried out by him even as a bride in death.

    To this eternal Indian woman, the home is her temple, the husband her god, the children his blessings and the land her great mother.

    This a story of one such Indian woman, a supreme symbol of millions of mothers that make this ancient land Mother India.”

    [I’ve left the grammar errors in intentionally.]

    Suffice it to say, the film itself is not nearly as bad as this makes it sound (it is widely considered a masterpeice), but with US distribution like this, you can see why Indian cinema has trouble abroad.

  5. Good questions! I left the theater totally uplifted, surprised to have seen such a classically masala film, and curious about how people in India and elsewhere would react to the “this is what westerners expect India to look like” aspects of this movie.

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